BUDAPEST The United States would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban if the Afghan government pursued talks to end the war, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
But he said Washington would not consider any negotiations with al Qaeda.
Gates said reconciliation would be the political end to the conflict in Afghanistan, but it must happen on the Afghan government's terms and the Taliban must commit to subject itself to the sovereignty of the government.
"There has to be ultimately, and I'll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this," Gates told reporters after his first day of NATO meetings in Budapest about the Afghanistan war.
"That's ultimately the exit strategy for all of us."
But Gates said reconciliation efforts could not include anyone belonging to al Qaeda, the group that had claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001, attacks and the main target of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts around the world.
"We have to be sure that we're not talking about any al Qaeda," he said, when listing conditions for reconciliation in Afghanistan.
Asked again if he thought talks were possible with the Taliban but not al Qaeda, Gates said, "Yeah."
Britain's military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, and the top U.N. official in the country have said the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily, and that talks with the Taliban will be crucial to ending the conflict.
NATO commanders and diplomats have also said for some time that negotiations with the militants will be needed.
Separately, Britain's ambassador in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, backed an "acceptable dictator" as the best solution, according to excerpts from a diplomatic cable published in a French newspaper.
Gates initially dismissed the remarks as "defeatist," but on Thursday he was less dismissive.
"Maybe I'm giving some of these folks the benefit of the doubt but I think what they had in mind is basically what we said all along in Iraq -- that this is not ultimately something that will be settled militarily," he said.
He said the officials also meant that greater civilian-led reconstruction and aid efforts were needed, as well as reconciliation with Taliban fighters willing to work with the Kabul government.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week he had asked Saudi Arabia to mediate in talks with the insurgents and called on Taliban leader Mullah Omar to return to his homeland and make peace. But his plea was rejected by a senior Taliban leader.
NATO allies have grown frustrated at the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan some seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Afghanistan has become more deadly than Iraq for U.S. and other foreign forces.
The Bush administration is conducting a review of its Afghan strategy similar to a review in 2006 of its Iraq policy that led to the "surge," which added 30,000 troops to Iraq and helped pull the country back from the brink of civil war.
Asked if reconciliation would be part of the new strategy, Gates said, "As an end state it has to be part of it."
(Editing by Dominic Evans)