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by RAY FLEMING

CAN the most senior serving officer in the British army have a “purely private view” on Afghanistan? On BBC Radio 4's World this Weekend on Sunday, General Sir David Richards who is head of the British Army said he thought that coalition forces should open talks with the Taliban “pretty soon” as part of a future exit strategy. Claiming that he was expressing a “private view” he said that there was “no reason why we shouldn't be looking at that sort of thing pretty soon.” General Richards spent some years in Afghanistan before taking up his present post last year so his opinion must carry weight. But who is he speaking for? Only himself? Surely not. The Army? The Ministry of Defence? General Petraeus?

There are far too many opinions about Afghanistan being offered from official sources. It is difficult enough to get one's head round the main strands of the US and Nato strategy and to try to work out what part the Taliban might play, if any, in a final settlement without having apparently only half-baked ideas put on the table. “We need to continue to make the Taliban feel they are being punished in a military sense,“ said General Richards, “but whether we can turn that into some sense of strategic defeat, I'm less certain.” What does that mean? Statements about Afghanistan policy should come from the responsible ministers and nobody else.