Gates confirms talks with Taliban

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates confirmed Sunday that the U.S. State Department is talking directly with the Taliban, but he poured cold water on the possibility that the talks would lead to a quick end to the war in Afghanistan.

The talks — described by Mr. Gates on CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday as “very preliminary” — were first made public by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday. They come at a time of rising calls among Republicans for a speedier U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, calls that prompted further political debate on Sunday’s U.S. political talk shows.

“Other countries are involved as well,” Mr. Gates said, adding that they have been going on for “a few weeks, maybe.”

Mr. Gates said that, despite the discussions, continued “military pressure” must be placed on the Taliban to ensure they are willing to meet “the red lines” that the U.S.-led coalition has set out for peace, one of which is that the Taliban must cut all ties with al Qaeda.

“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 Mr. Gates, who will leave office June 30. “I think that [JUMP]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.”

Mr. Gates spoke just a day after insurgents stormed a police station in Kabul, killing nine people. The flurry of diplomatic outreach coincides with rising tension between Mr. Karzai and leading U.S. diplomats over a recent series of speeches in which Mr. Karzai said the U.S. is in danger of becoming an “occupying force” in his country.

He has threatened “unilateral action” against foreign forces that conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan, and accused those same foreign forces of trying to undermine his government.

On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said he finds those comments “hurtful and inappropriate” and warned that they undermine Americans’ willingness to underwrite the Afghan government with their blood.

“When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost in terms of lives and treasure, hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people [EnLeader] they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here,” Mr. Eikenberry told students at an Afghan university in unusually blunt talk from an ambassador about his host country.

“Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, spouses of soldiers who have lost arms and legs, children of those who lost their lives in your country — they ask themselves about the meaning of their loved one’s sacrifice,” he said, according to an Associated Press dispatch from Kabul that also noted the ambassador did not mention Mr. Karzai by name.

Like Mr. Gates, Mr. Eikenberry is expected to leave his post soon. Diplomatic cables from Mr. Eikenberry describing Mr. Karzai as “paranoid and weak” were published by WikiLeaks last year.

On the U.S. political front, many lawmakers have questioned whether, after nearly a decade, the U.S. should continue operations in Afghanistan, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the Republican presidential primary contest, candidates are more skeptical about that war and U.S. involvement in the Libyan conflict.

During the 2008 campaign, the so-called “isolationist” sect of the party was dominated by Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican with a libertarian streak who has strongly opposed the Iraq war and hostilities in Libya. This time, more candidates are critical of U.S. military interventions around the globe.

“We were not attacked, we were not threatened with attack, there was no vital national interest,” Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, said of the Libya civil war in last week’s New Hampshire debate.

But two of the GOP’s leading hawks pushed back Sunday against what they called a growing “isolationist” streak in their party. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and his party’s 2008 presidential candidate, and Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said that such talk puts Republicans in danger of losing their identity as the party of national security.

“I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today,” he said on ABC’s “This Week. “He would be saying, ‘Well, that’s not the Republican Party of the 20th century and now the 21st century. That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people all over the world.’[ThSp]“

Mr. McCain said he “totally” disagrees with Mrs. Bachmann’s words about Libya and singled out Mitt Romney, who has advocated a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying the former Massachusetts governor should “sit down with [outgoing Afghanistan commander Gen. David H. Petraeus] and understand how this counterinsurgency is working and succeeding.”

Mr. Romney has said, however, that any withdrawal must be completed only after consultation with commanders in the field and officials at the Defense Department.

Mr. Graham has said last week’s Republican debate sounded “more like Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan” about national security. He stood by those comments Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“If you think the pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama’s left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, you’re going to meet a lot of headwinds,” he said.

Mr. Graham said “yes” when asked whether he is worried about a growing “isolationist streak” in the Republican Party, and said some presidential candidates apparently lack “an understanding of what’s going on in Afghanistan as a consequence of losing.”

A key difference in the 2012 campaign from the 2008 contest is the increased focus on the nation’s ballooning debt, which now stands at more than $14 trillion.

Mr. Gates warned the Republican candidates not to zero in on the defense budget when looking for places to cut spending.

”I worry people whose primary worry and concern is the economy and the deficit will see defense as a way to reduce those obligations and that deficit,” he said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding that “the base defense budget is not part of the deficit problem.”

That “base defense budget,” which excludes the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, operations in Libya and disaster relief efforts in Japan, is only 3[1/2] percent of gross domestic product, he said.

He stressed that while he understands many Republican politicians, along with the general public, are growing tired of war, steep spending cuts at the Pentagon could jeopardize the gains U.S. forces have made in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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