Headway in Taliban talks may be months off: Gates

WASHINGTON Sun Jun 19, 2011 12:36pm EDT

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates smiles during his final official news conference at the Pentagon near Washington, June 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates smiles during his final official news conference at the Pentagon near Washington, June 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It could be months before efforts to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban bear fruit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview aired on Sunday.

Gates, who steps down at the end of the month, said there had been contacts between United States and the Taliban in recent weeks, headed by the State Department.

"There's been outreach on the -- on the part of a number of countries, including the United States. I would say that these contacts are very preliminary at this point," he told the CNN program "State of the Union."

The comments from the outgoing defense chief were aired a day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced the United States was in contact with the Taliban, a striking public acknowledgment of a peace initiative that has been cloaked with secrecy.

Karzai said an Afghan push toward peace talks, after nearly a decade of war, had not yet reached a stage where the government and insurgents were meeting, but their representatives had been in touch.

"Peace talks are going on with the Taliban. The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations," Karzai said in a speech in Kabul.

The comments come as President Barack Obama prepares to announce the size and nature of the initial U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan nearly 10 years after the September 11 attacks.

Obama, who has increased the size of the U.S. force by about 65,000 soldiers since he took office in early 2009, is hoping to move definitively toward ending the war as he faces sharp fiscal pressures and eyes his 2012 re-election campaign.

But Gates cautioned the peace initiative would be fraught with challenges, including locating members of the Taliban who could credibly speak for its Pakistan-based leadership.

"Who really represents the Taliban?" Gates said. "... We don't want to end up having a conversation at some point with somebody who is basically a freelancer."

Gates added, "My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter."

'THEY CAN'T WIN'

"I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure, and begin to believe that they can't win before they're willing to have a serious conversation."

U.S. commanders are hailing success in pushing the Taliban out of key parts of southern Afghanistan, but violence has surged and the insurgency has become even more fierce along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan.

Western military leaders say they have weakened the Taliban but predict more intense fighting ahead just as Afghan forces start to take over from the NATO-led force in some areas.

The Obama administration, which is reassessing its role in Afghanistan after a raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, believes the Afghan war cannot be concluded without a political settlement, as distasteful as it may be to negotiate with a group it has been battling for years.

Gates said al Qaeda has been "significantly weakened" but the United States still worries about the militant group's central organization and branches in places like Yemen and North Africa.

Gates noted that Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri has taken the helm of al Qaeda after bin Laden's death.

"The question is whether Zawahri, the new leader taking bin Laden's place, can hold these groups together in some kind of a cohesive movement, or whether it begins to splinter, and they become essentially regional terrorist groups that are more focused on regional targets," Gates said.

(Reporting by Missy Ryan)

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Comments (4)
SODIWALIA wrote:
The US is working on the assumption that under enormous military pressure, at some point in time, the Taliban will finally realize that they cannot win and that is how they will come on to the negotiations table with a serious mind. According to US understanding, Taliban’s seriousness is to be judged on the basis of their willingness to accept the US conditions for talks. In my opinion this sort of mindset will make it a non starter. First of all US has to realize that Taliban are a reality which US has not been able to wipe out in spite of its superior fire power, very well equipped forces and astounding expenditure of billions of dollars. Taliban fighters are ill equipped, have scanty clothes to protect themselves from the rigours of merciless weather and often move across the very difficult terrain bare footed. After all which is that factor which has kept the Taliban going, in spite of ten years fighting with thousands time superior US forces. If the US continues the way it has been doing earlier then the results can even be more unfavourable for US. It is a war of attrition of troops, logistic resources and the national economy. Fed up with the foreign occupation more and more young Afghans are reported to be joining the Taliban ranks. Unless the coalition makes some sane and quick decisions, the possibility of being sucked into the black hole of Afghanistan cannot be ruled out. Unfortunately, this is the history of this nation.

Jun 19, 2011 12:01pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Azeem_Anwer wrote:
For the information of Mr. gates and the US people, Afghanistan was a lot more peaceful before the US invasion. You went there and destroyed their whole system. You do not to talk to the Taliban to restore the same old peace – just leave the Afghanistan.

What you might really be talking with Taliban is the safe passage you need to pull out your boys from there walking and not wrapped in the US flags.

Jun 19, 2011 3:48pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Whatsgoingon wrote:
It could be months before efforts to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban bear fruit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview aired on Sunday. Can’t help wondering – what’s the definition of “fruit”? Taxpayers are seeing their teachers laid off one after another. Is a definition of “win” too much to ask for after $Ts have been spent?

Jun 19, 2011 11:59pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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