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KABUL, Dec 11: A group of influential international experts on Afghanistan on Saturday appealed to US President Barack Obama to radically change his strategy in the war-ravaged nation and negotiate directly with the Taliban.

A huge US troop surge has failed to stem a worsening insurgency in Afghanistan, with 2010 proving to be a year of record violence.

The letter from 23 researchers, journalists and NGO chiefs comes just days before the White House publishes an evaluation of the US strategy.

Researchers Gilles Dorronsoro from France and Italian Antonio Giustozzi, as well as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, were among those who said the current strategy was failing as the Taliban, ousted from government by a US-led invasion in 2001, grew in strength.

A coalition government that includes the Taliban should be the long-term goal, they said.

“We ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan,” the experts said in their open letter.

“It is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year.” “The situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country,” the letter said.

“The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country.” The experts said military operations in Kandahar and Helmand, provinces in the south hard hit by the insurgency, are not going well and had become “a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property.

“Due to the violence of the military operations, we are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside, with a direct effect on the sustainability of the war.” “The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure,” the group said, decrying the “huge” human and financial cost of the war.

The letter also says the 2014 deadline to put the Afghan army in command of security was unrealistic.

“Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement.

The Taliban's leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate and it is in our interests to talk to them.” Since taking office, Obama has ordered more than 50,000 extra troops into battle to reverse Taliban momentum and build up Afghan government forces so that combat troops can start leaving in 2011. There are more than 140,000 US-led Nato troops on the ground — two-thirds of them American.

But the increased numbers has also seen more troops killed this year than ever before, with more than 680 foreign soldiers dead so far in 2010 and the tally mounting almost daily.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made overtures to the Taliban and other insurgents to negotiate an end to the war, but that was “not enough”, the experts said.

“The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account,” they said.—AFP