* Says Pakistan could help Afghan Taliban reconciliation
* Difficult to protect former Taliban in disputed areas
* Pakistan's military stretched thin, consolidating gains
TAMPA, Fla., Feb 3 (Reuters) - U.S. General David Petraeus voiced support for Pakistan's "constructive involvement" in reaching out to Afghan Taliban to encourage reconciliation, saying its past ties to militants could prove helpful.
But the head of U.S. Central Command, who is overseeing a surge 30,000 additional U.S. forces into Afghanistan, cautioned in an interview that prospects for reconciliation among senior leaders were slight, at least for now.
Even protecting low-level fighters who choose to re-integrate into Afghan society can be tough in parts of Afghanistan where NATO forces were still fighting for control.
"If you have an area that is insecure to begin with, then it is difficult, though not undoable, to guarantee security for somebody who wants to come in from the cold," Petraeus said in an interview this week at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
Providing security for Taliban who want to leave the fight is considered critical for any re-integration process to succeed, and past failures to do so are frequently cited as among the shortcoming of the eight-year-old war effort.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose repeated peace overtures to the Taliban in recent years have so far resulted in the surrender of some low-ranking militant fighters, has called on the Taliban to take part in a "loya jirga" -- or large assembly of elders.
Analysts say Pakistan could be well placed to help since it nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s. Pakistan's government has said it is reaching out to all levels of the Afghan Taliban.
"(It) is an endeavor in which there could indeed be constructive involvement by members of Pakistani institutions that are familiar with those individuals, or in some cases have dealt with them in the past," Petraeus said.
He noted a potential role for Saudi Arabia, which has hosted talks between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government in the past, and where Karzai is traveling this week seeking support.
PROSPECTS FOR RECONCILIATION
"But I think again ... we need to be very clear-eyed about the prospects for high-level reconciliation when many of the enemies think they are resurgent," he said.
He said it was too soon to hope for reconciliation with the likes of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar but said you "cannot rule out" that other organizations and mid-level leaders, potentially some in eastern Afghanistan, might want to end the fight.
"And it's just good to have the intellectual construct, the processes thought through in case these opportunities present themselves" in the future, he said.
Main Taliban factions, such as those led by veteran guerrilla commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar, derive much support from supply networks and bases on the Pakistani side of the border.
Petraeus played down the possibility of any new, large-scale Pakistani offensive against those insurgent groups in the immediate future.
He said Pakistan's military was already stretched thin trying to consolidate gains from offensives in the past year against Pakistani Taliban attacking the state.
"Given the way the military is stretched, it's understandable that poking more short sticks into hornets' nests becomes a difficult proposition," he said.
He said critics needed to appreciate the gains made in Pakistan so far and "the limits again to how much more can be done until these gains have been solidified." (Editing by David Storey)
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