WASHINGTON — As President Obama nears a decision on an Afghanistan troop withdrawal, his retiring defense secretary says he does not believe the Taliban will engage in serious talks about ending their fight until they are under extreme military pressure.
Pentagon chief Robert Gates acknowledged that “there’s been outreach’’ to the Taliban by the United States and others, but he described the contacts as “very preliminary at this point.’’
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said Saturday that the US and Afghan governments have held talks with Taliban emissaries in an effort to end the nearly 10-year war.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan and sheltered Al Qaeda before being driven from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001, have said publicly that 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 Gates, who retires as defense secretary at month’s end.
Efforts by the Afghan government’s Peace Council and other bodies to get Taliban fighters to switch sides has yet to draw as many converts as expected.
“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,’’ he told CNN’s “State of the Union’’ in an interview taped Saturday after Karzai’s announcement.
In the days ahead, Obama will decide 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 CIA Director Leon Panetta’s assessment that fewer than 100 Al Qaeda members remain in Afghanistan and the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama has said the initial withdrawal will be “significant,’’ but others in the administration, including Gates, have urged a more modest drawdown.
The US goal is to give Afghans control of their own security by the end of 2014.
Many Taliban leaders remain unknown or underground since fleeing Kabul at the start of the war. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Taliban, has not been seen publicly since 2001.
Gates said the United Stated long has 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 goals that Karzai and the coalition “have laid down, including totally disavowing Al Qaeda.’’
In a separate interview on ‘Fox News Sunday,’’ Gates said he has learned that it takes bipartisan support to succeed in national security and foreign affairs, and he worries that more partisanship is seeping into those areas.