US joins Taleban talks but swears by military force

THE United States has joined other countries in "outreach" talks with the Taleban in Afghanistan, outgoing defence secretary Robert Gates confirmed yesterday.

He warned real progress will not be made in discussions until the insurgents are put under "military pressure".

Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the US and Afghan government have held talks with Taleban emissaries in an effort to end the nearly ten-year war.

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The Taleban, which ruled Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda before being driven from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001, says there will be no negotiations until foreign troops leave the country.

"My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter," said Mr Gates, who retires as defence secretary at the end of the month.

"I think the Taleban 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," he said.

President Barack Obama is set to decide shortly how many of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan to withdraw in the initial round of reductions.

Several members of Congress want significant cuts, citing the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and CIA director Leon Panetta's assessment that fewer than 100 al-Qaeda members remain in Afghanistan.

When Mr Obama sent an additional 30,000 US forces to Afghanistan at the end of 2009, he said some of those troops would start coming home in July 2011.

The president has said the initial withdrawal will be "significant," but others in the administration, including Gates, have urged a more modest withdrawal. Mr Gates said it "must be politically credible here at home. So I think there's a lot of room for manoeuvering there".

The US goal is to give Afghans control of their own security by the end of 2014.

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Many Taleban leaders remain unknown or underground since fleeing Kabul at the start of the war. Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has not been seen publicly since 2001.

Mr Gates said: "I think the first question we have is who represents Mullah Omar.

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

Mr Gates said the US has previously said that "a political outcome is the way most of these wars end."The question is when and if they're ready to talk seriously about meeting the redlines that President Karzai, and that the coalition have laid down, including totally disavowing al-Qaeda."

Mr Gates also said al-Qaeda had "significantly weakened" following the death of Osama bin Laden, but the US still worries about the militant group's central organisation and branches in places like Yemen and North Africa.

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

He added: "The question is whether Zawahri can hold these groups together in some kind of a cohesive movement or whether it begins to splinter."

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