Robert Gates 311R.
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON - It could be months before efforts to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban bear fruit, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview aired on Sunday.
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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 US 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 US drawdown from Afghanistan nearly 10
years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Obama, who has increased the size of the US 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."
US 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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,"