updated 10/3/2006 4:30:00 PM ET 2006-10-03T20:30:00

Democrats accused Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of waving a white flag of surrender for saying the Afghan war against Taliban guerrillas can never be won militarily and favoring bringing "people who call themselves Taliban" into the government.

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Frist, who was traveling in Afghanistan, said Monday that Taliban fighters were too numerous and too popular to be defeated. "You need to bring them into a more transparent type of government," he said. "And if that's accomplished, we'll be successful."

The comments from the Tennessee Republican, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, come as President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have accused Democrats of being weak on national security and adhering to a policy of retreat.

Democratic response
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States went to war in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban for its role with al-Qaida.

"Senator Frist now suggests that the best way forward in Afghanistan is to coddle the Taliban by welcoming Taliban members into a coalition government, as if 9/11 had never happened," Pelosi said Tuesday in a statement.

Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, "Doctors are supposed to wear the white coat, not wave the white flag. Dr. Frist's proposal to surrender to the Taliban ignores the fact that they enabled the 9/11 hijackers, give safe haven to al-Qaida and remain hell-bent on destroying Western civilization."

Frist is a heart surgeon.

Addditional Majority Leader remarks
In Afghanistan, Frist also said: "Approaching counterinsurgency by winning hearts and minds will ultimately be the answer. Military versus insurgency one-to-one doesn't sound like it can be won. It sounds to me ... that the Taliban is everywhere."

Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the senator, on Tuesday sought to clarify Frist's comments.

"While touring Afghanistan, Senator Frist made the observation that Afghan tribesman should be brought into the government or risk losing them to the Taliban," she said in a statement. "Giving the native tribes, often targeted by Taliban recruitment, a voice in the government will promote peace and prosperity in the region. Sen. Frist does not believe Taliban fighters - often foreign fighters who come to Afghanistan to further conflict - should be brought into the reconciliation process."

Democrats said that amounted to backpedaling and accused Frist of trying to "cut-and-run" in Afghanistan, something Republicans have been accusing Democrats of seeking to do in Iraq.

Decision 2008
Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor of media and public affairs, said Frist's comments could hurt Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections and would hurt Frist's own presidential ambitions.

"It is so far out of keeping with what Republicans are saying, and will need so much massaging by his press operatives, that it really casts in a new light the seriousness of him as a future Republican nominee for president," Hess said.

Afghanistan is suffering its heaviest insurgent attacks since a U.S.-led military force toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Bush recently acknowledged setbacks in the training of Afghan police to fight against the Taliban resurgence but predicted eventual victory.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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