U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says as more troops flow into Afghanistan and they begin to implement the new U.S. strategy, there has been an increase in the number of low-level Taliban fighters who are surrendering. But as Afghan President Hamid Karzai begins talks with the leaders of the Taliban and related groups, Gates says he thinks it is too early to expect those committed militants to accept peace on what he considers reasonable terms.
Secretary Gates told a congressional committee he sees two processes as essential to solving Afghanistan's internal disputes in the long term.
One, he calls "reintegration," and it involves militant foot soldiers, many of whom he says fight to earn money or because they have been intimidated. He says there has long been a trickle of such people seeking government protection to rejoin society, and the numbers have recently begun to increase.
"That is already happening. The numbers are relatively small, but we can already see increases in the number of those [seeking reintegration] at that lower level," he said.
Gates says the burden is now on the Afghan government and its international partners to provide protection and jobs for the former fighters in order to encourage more to join the trend.
But the defense secretary says the other part of a political settlement, which he calls "reconciliation," involves the senior militant leadership, and for that he says it is still "probably early."
"The shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are, in fact, going to lose," said Gates. "And it is when they begin to have doubts about whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal. And I do not think we are there yet," he said.
Secretary Gates believes that may come later, as more foreign troops flow in and the coalition and Afghan government take control of more parts of the country.
But President Karzai is getting the process started. He is planning a peace council for next month, and this week he met with representatives of Hezb-e-Islami, one of the main Taliban affiliates. That move resulted in some concern expressed by members of Congress.
Secretary Gates said any reconciliation and reintegration process must be handled by President Karzai in his own way. But he laid out some basic conditions to be met to earn U.S. support for any Afghan political settlement.
"Our concern is that the reconciliation take place on the terms of the Afghan government and that it be done from a position of strength, where those who are reconciling, who have been opposed to the Afghan government, agree to put down their weapons, agree to abide by the Afghan constitution and agree to participate in the political process," said Gates.
The proposal Hezb-e-Islami presented to President Karzai did not come close to meeting those criteria.
Gates said U.S. and allied forces are working to create the 'position of strength' he mentioned between now and July of next year, when President Barack Obama has said the Afghan government will have to begin to take responsibility for security in its country.