Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that US officials were involved in preliminary talks with the Taliban to seek a political solution to the Afghan war but said he didn’t expect significant progress for months.
Gates also said recent gains on the ground in Afghanistan meant President Barack Obama would have “a lot of room for maneuver” when deciding how many troops to withdraw as he begins a limited US drawdown next month.
Almost a decade into the Afghan conflict, the American public has grown increasingly war-weary and the killing of Osama bin Laden and other leading Al-Qaeda figures in recent months is fueling calls for a rapid pullout.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced on Saturday that the United States was holding talks with the Taliban.
“I think there’s been outreach on the part of a number of countries, including the United States,” Gates confirmed to CNN, adding that the contact has been going on for “a few weeks maybe.”
“I would say that these contacts are very preliminary at this point,” he said, stressing it was crucial to determine “who really represents the Taliban” before jumping into talks with parties claiming to represent leader Mullah Omar.
“My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter. 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.”
The Taliban, driven from power in Afghanistan when US and British troops invaded following the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, have consistently rejected in public statements any willingness to negotiate.
Although diplomats and officials say talks are at a very early stage, they highlight a growing focus on trying to find a political solution as foreign combat troops prepare to pull out — under the current timetable by 2014.
On Friday, the UN Security Council split the international sanctions regime for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in a bid to encourage the Taliban to join reconciliation efforts.
The action sends “a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from Al-Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution,” said US envoy to the UN Susan Rice.
Officials say Al-Qaeda has been on the ropes for the past 18 months in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provided it safe haven when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
High-ranking officials told The New York Times that 20 out of 30 prominent Al-Qaeda members targeted by intelligence agencies have been killed in the last 18 months.
Obama ordered 33,000 extra forces to Afghanistan in December 2009 in an attempt to thwart an emboldened Taliban’s momentum, bringing the total deployed to 100,000. He said he would begin withdrawing forces in July 2011.
Gates, who leaves his post at the end of the month, has typically been cautious about pulling troops out of Afghanistan too rapidly, but acknowledged that recent security successes — neutralizing the Taliban in both their home turf of Kandahar and in Helmand provinces — left Obama with more options.
“I would say that whatever decision the president makes, it’s going to be a decision that is based on the gains that we’ve laid on the ground, success on the ground,” Gates told Fox News Sunday.
“Whatever decision he makes we will have a significant number of troops remaining in Afghanistan,” he told CNN, while adding: “The drawdown must be politically credible here at home.”
Asked if he thought it would be wise to conduct a vast drawdown as has been recommended by some senior US lawmakers, Gates said: “I am not going to get into any advice that I may or may not feel is right.”
The defense secretary did acknowledge the toll the long mission had taken at home, saying: “I know the American people are tired of war.” But he also warned that the United States would have to maintain “a key role for some period of time.”
On Sunday, the US ambassador to Afghanistan hit back at Karzai’s repeated criticisms of foreign forces in a rare public acknowledgement of tensions underpinning US-Afghan relations.
Karl Eikenberry said some comments by Afghan leaders had been “hurtful and inappropriate”, adding that when his country is “called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on”.
Although he did not mention Karzai by name, the remarks by Eikenberry — who is due to leave his job soon — came after a series of comments by Karzai sharply criticising the coalition effort in Afghanistan.
In the most recent, Karzai last month said the US-dominated, NATO-led force in Afghanistan risked becoming an “occupying force” if air strikes which accidentally kill civilians continue.