Wed, Oct 08, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Militants key to Afghanistan’s future: Gates

LONG-TERM SOLUTION US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said an effort must be made to determine who wants to be part of the country’s future and who does not

AP AND AFP , ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, BERLIN AND KABUL

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Monday endorsed efforts to reach out to members of the Taliban or other militants in Afghanistan who may be considered reconcilable, much like what has happened in Iraq.

And he rejected assertions made by a British commander that the Afghan war is not winnable.

Speaking to reporters en route to international meetings in Macedonia and Hungary, Gates said that efforts must be made to determine who is willing to be part of the future of Afghanistan and who is not.

“That is one of the key long-term solutions in Afghanistan, just as it has been in Iraq,” Gates said. “Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government going forward.”

Those who are not willing to work with the government must be dealt with militarily, he said.

Gates’ comments came after revelations that Taliban representatives met with Afghan government officials last month in Saudi Arabia, a former high-level Taliban ambassador said on Monday.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, denied the meeting could be construed as peace talks. He said he was invited by Saudi King Abdullah to share Iftar — the meal that breaks the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. Taliban representatives and Afghan government officials were also at the meal.

Asked if such efforts by the Saudis were welcome, Gates said that whoever can play a constructive role is welcome.

Gates will be meeting with NATO allies in Hungary to discuss future troop, equipment, funding and other contributions to the Afghan war. He said he would be making the argument that those who cannot send troops, or make other commitments, should back the effort by providing money.

Washington has already begun beefing up its troop strength in Afghanistan, with plans to send Marines before the end of the year, and then an Army brigade early next year, with commitments to send as many as three additional brigades in the following months.

“I want to make sure that everybody understands that the increases in U.S. forces are not seen as replacements for NATO contributions,” Gates said, adding that he wants allies — both NATO members and those who are not — to continue to send troops to the war, and particularly fill the increased need for more trainers for the Afghan security forces.

Currently the US has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 13,000 with the NATO-led force, and 20,000 fighting the insurgency and training Afghan forces.

Asked about comments made by a British commander, suggesting that the Afghan war cannot be won, Gates was more optimistic.

“While we face some significant challenges in Afghanistan, there certainly is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunities to be successful in the long run,” he said.

Meanwhile, a German official said yesterday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet has decided to extend the country’s military mission in Afghanistan for 14 months.

The official was present for the decision and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it ahead of an official announcement.

The number of German troops serving with the NATO-led international force is expected to increase this year from 1,000 to 4,500. The extension was seen as likely to pass parliament, whose lower house was scheduled to debate it later yesterday.

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