By Sanjeev Miglani
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Saturday there could be political talks with the Afghan Taliban by the end of this year, if the U.S-led NATO alliance continued to make military advances on the ground, putting pressure on the insurgents.
In the clearest signal yet of efforts to seek reconciliation with the Taliban, Gates told a security conference in Singapore that the gains on the Afghan battlefield were laying the ground for talks with the insurgents.
"If we can sustain those successes, if we can further expand the security bubble, (if) we have enough evidence that the Taliban are under pressure that their capabilities are being degraded, then perhaps this winter the possibility of some kind of political talks or reconciliation might be substantive enough to offer some hope of progress," he said at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on security in the Asia Pacific region.
Gates's comments follow reports that the U.S. has begun a secret engagement with the Taliban as it begins to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July as part of a process to hand over all combat operations to Afghan security forces by 2014.
Officials in several countries have said there have been contacts, although these do not yet constitute a peace process.
The death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month, who was sheltered by the Taliban earlier, is seen as helping the reconciliation process with the insurgents who are focused on ridding their homeland of foreign forces rather than a global agenda of jihad that bin Laden's al Qaeda has pursued.
"It is clear that the Taliban must sever the relationship with al Qaeda, they must agree to live under the Afghan constitution and they must be willing to put down arms and live in a society where the government has predominant monopoly over the use of force," Gates said.
"That said, the Taliban are probably a part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point, and can, if they abide by all the rules I just described, all the conditions, they can potentially have a political role in the future of the country," he said.
Violence is at its highest in Afghanistan in years with the Taliban carrying out a wave of attacks across the country including the relatively peaceful regions of the north and west, despite coming under pressure from a surge of U.S. troops in their southern bastions.
Support for the war in western countries has, at the same time, fallen with many in the United States saying that with bin Laden eliminated and his al Qaeda no longer a dominant player in Afghanistan, the costly involvement had served its original purpose.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)