U.S. confirms talks with Taliban
Contacts 'very preliminary,' defence secretary says
It could be months before efforts to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban bear fruit, retiring U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates says.
The U.S. State Department has made contact with the group in recent weeks, Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday, a day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the United States has begun talks with the militant group.
Gates said the time is right for talks, now that the Taliban's influence has been diminished.
"They have been significantly weakened. There's just no two ways about it," he said. "Killing bin Laden? He's not the first leader we've killed from al-Qaeda. We've taken a real toll on them, particularly in the last two years, but [also] in the last several."
However, Gates said he doesn't believe the militant group will engage in serious talks about ending their fight unless they are under military pressure.
"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.
'The first question we have is, who really represents the Taliban?'—Robert Gates
Gates, who steps down at the end of June, said "real reconciliation talks" are not likely to make any "substantive headway" until at least this winter.
He said the U.S. is one of a number of countries reaching out for "very preliminary" contacts.
"The first question we have is, who really represents the Taliban? We don't want to end up having a conversation at some point with somebody who's basically a freelancer," he said.
Gate's comments come as President Barack Obama prepares to announce the size and nature of the initial U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan, nearly 10 years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country in order to oust the Taliban.
Canada's military role will conclude at the end of July, when the mission will change to training afghan forces.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda before being driven from power in late 2001, say publicly there will be no negotiations until foreign troops leave the country.
Several members of Congress want significant cuts to the number of U.S. troops, citing the killing of Osama bin Laden and CIA director Leon Panetta's assessment that fewer than 100 al-Qaeda members remain in Afghanistan.
With files from The Associated Press