updated 10/6/2008 8:11:37 PM ET 2008-10-07T00:11:37

Defense Secretary 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," said Gates, "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 followed revelations that Taliban representatives met with Afghan government officials last month in Saudi Arabia, a former high-level Taliban ambassador said 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 Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Taliban representatives and Afghan government officials were also at the meal.

Asked if such efforts by the Saudi's 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 will be making the argument that those who cannot send troops, or make other commitments, should back the effort by providing money.

The United States 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 U.S. 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 offered a more optimistic view.

"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.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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