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Clinton, Gates Cautious on Afghan-Taliban Peace Contacts

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (both center), at NATO Headquarters in Brussels 14 Oct 2010
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (both center), at NATO Headquarters in Brussels 14 Oct 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban are just beginning, and it's unclear if they will bear fruit. Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed the Afghan conflict in closed-door talks in Brussels with NATO colleagues.

The talks here came against a background of reports from Afghanistan that reconciliation contacts are underway between Kabul authorities and Taliban members, and that the insurgents may be ready to negotiate an end to the conflict.

But both Clinton and Secretary Gates expressed caution about the reported process at a NATO press conference. Clinton said the peace contacts are "just beginning" and with many "different strains" which may or may not be legitimate or yield any bona fide reconciliation.

Related video report by Robert Raffaele.

"We support what the Afghans are doing. We obviously have sought and obtained transparency, and we have an understanding of their goals and objectives. And they have a very clear understanding of our redlines. So this will play out over a period of time. And obviously we have for more than year supported this kind of effort. But the timing is everything, and the sincerity of outreach is everything. So we're not yet ready to make judgments about whether any of this will bear fruit," said Clinton.

U.S. officials have long held that, to make peace, Taliban members would have to renounce violence, links to al-Qaida and support the Afghan constitution including its protections for women.

Clinton and Gates made clear they are more optimistic about efforts to lure low-level Taliban fighters off the battlefield with various incentives, the so-called re-integration process. But Gates said reconciliation is none-the-less worth trying.

"Whenever opportunities arise that are worth exploring, I think we ought to take advantage of that. And whether they lead to something concrete in the short-term, or establish a precedent for something that may develop months or a year from now, I think it really doesn't matter.  We need to be open to opportunities that arise," said Gates.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters the best way to expedite both the reconciliation and reintegration process is to keep up the allied military pressure on the Taliban.

"The Taliban is under pressure everywhere in Afghanistan. And I really do believe the stronger the military pressure, the better the chances for the reconciliation process,” said the NATO chief.

The former Danish Prime Minister stressed the NATO ministerial had yielded several new member-country pledges for trainers for Afghan security forces, and that the alliance may be able to announce at its Lisbon summit next month that a transition to Afghan-lead responsibility for security can begin in 2011.

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