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Taliban-U.S. Talks ‘Very Preliminary,’ Defense Chief Says

Defense Secretary Robert Gates
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Photographer: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

Talks between U.S. officials and Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan are “very preliminary,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

The U.S. State Department has been carrying out the talks on the part of the U.S. and undisclosed other countries for a few weeks, Gates said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program broadcast today. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said yesterday that there have been discussions with member of the Taliban who accept Afghanistan’s constitution, corroborating recent reports of a peace process.

Karzai said his government isn’t taking part in the talks. The Taliban militia ruled Afghanistan, harboring the al-Qaeda terrorist network, before being ousted by a U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I would say these contacts are very preliminary at this point,” Gates said. “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.”

President Barack Obama has pledged to fully transfer security duties to the Afghan government by 2014, with the first troop reductions due to be announced next month.

Political Outcome

“We’ve all said all along that a political outcome is the way most of these wars end,” Gates said on CNN. “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.”

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Forces committee, said he believes that members of Congress will support a “modest withdrawal” of 5,000 to 10,000 troops from Afghanistan in the coming months. Waiting until the middle of next year to announce a massive withdrawal would help Obama before the presidential election, McCain said today on ABC’s “This Week” program.

The strained U.S. relationship with neighboring Pakistan after al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found hiding there last month is “probably the most frustrating aspect” of efforts to establish order in Afghanistan, McCain said.

‘Governments Lie’

“Most governments lie to each other,” Gates said on CNN. “That’s the way business gets done.”

Pakistanis need to believe that the U.S. is committed to securing the region if they are going to rein in militant groups on their side of the border, McCain said.

“If they think we’re willing to see it through with them, I think it’s much more likely we’ll get their cooperation,” McCain said on ABC.

Gates said in Libya, Muammar Qaddafi’s troops are beginning to weaken and he will eventually be taken out of power, possibly by being killed. The U.S. will continue to support the NATO-led mission in Libya until that happens, Gates said in interviews on CNN and the “Fox News Sunday” program.

“The allies are prepared to sustain this,” he said on CNN. “I think this is going to end okay. Qaddafi will eventually fail.”

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, is challenging Obama’s use of U.S. troops without Congressional authorization. Boehner has said the House will look at options to force Obama’s hand, including cutting off funding for the operation or blocking unrelated White House priorities.

“Cutting off funding in the middle of a military operation when we have people engaged is always a mistake,” Gates said today on “Fox News Sunday.’

‘‘War weariness’’ may be leading Republicans to place partisan politics over national security, McCain said.

‘‘If Qaddafi remains in power, it could have profound consequences,’’ McCain said on ABC. ‘‘There’s always been an isolation strain in the Republican Party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage.’’

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