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Gates questions Taliban role in talks; Wary as decision on pullout nears

As President Obama nears a decision on an Afghanistan troop withdrawal, his retiring defense secretary says he doesn't believe the Taliban will engage in serious talks about ending their fight until they are under extreme military pressure.

Pentagon chief Robert Gates acknowledges that "there's been outreach" to the Taliban by the U.S. and others, but he describes the contacts as "very preliminary at this point."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that the U.S. and Afghan government have held talks with Taliban emissaries in an effort to end the nearly 10-year war. The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaida before being driven from power in the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, say 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.

"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 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to withdraw in the initial round of reductions. Several members of Congress want significant cuts, citing the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and CIA Director Leon Panetta's assessment that fewer than 100 al-Qaida members remain in Afghanistan.

When Obama sent an additional 30,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan at the end of 2009, he said some of those troops would start coming home in July 2011.

Obama has said the initial withdrawal will be "significant," but others in the administration, including Gates, have urged a more modest drawdown.

Gates said the troop reduction "must be politically credible here at home. So I think there's a lot of room for maneuvering there."

The U.S. 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 has not been seen publicly since 2001.

"I think the first question we have is who represents Mullah Omar?" Gates said. "Who really represents the Taliban? We don't want to end up having a conversation at some point with somebody who is basically a free-lancer."

Gates said the U.S. 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 [conditions]."

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