Poland NATO Defense Ministers
Virginia Mayo  /  AP
U.S. Defense Secretary for Defense Robert Gates, center, and other NATO defense ministers are looking at reforms to the alliance to help it meet modern threats.
updated 2/20/2009 8:08:28 PM ET 2009-02-21T01:08:28

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that Washington could accept a political agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban if the insurgents will lay down their arms and accept the government's terms.

He was responding to a question from a Pakistani reporter about whether a deal struck by Pakistan with Taliban fighters in the restive Swat valley could serve as a model for Afghanistan.

On Monday, Pakistan announced it would agree to the imposition of Islamic law in the northwest valley as part of an agreement aimed at restoring peace after an 18-month military campaign. The pact was spearheaded by a hard-line cleric who is negotiating with the Taliban in the valley to give up their arms.

A reporter from Pakistan's Geo Television brought up the Swat deal and criticism of it by Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's envoy to the region.

The reporter asked whether, if Pakistan succeeds in pacifying militant activity in Swat, the United States would allow Afghans to make a similar type of agreement.

Gates replied: "If there is a reconciliation, if insurgents are willing to put down their arms, if the reconciliation is essentially on the terms being offered by the government then I think we would be very open to that.

"We have said all along that ultimately some sort of political reconciliation has to be part of the long-term solution in Afghanistan," Gates said.

Later, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said: "The secretary is too polite to take issue with the premise of the question, but he was in no way equating the prospect for reconciliation in Afghanistan with whatever deal the Pakistani government may or may not be trying to cut with militants in Swat province."

No firm NATO troop commitments
U.S. interest in the possibility of future talks with moderate Taliban elements is not new. Military commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, have suggested that such efforts, if led by Afghan officials, would be useful.

Afghanistan's government has said it wants to persuade Taliban guerrillas who are not "hard-liners" to lay down their arms in return for a political role in the country. But representatives of the Taliban, who have made significant military gains in the last two years and now control vast swathes of countryside, say they will not negotiate while foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.

A similar deal in Swat last year collapsed in a few months and was blamed for giving insurgents time to regroup.

Gates also welcomed the fact that NATO nations have signaled a willingness to provide more troops or other assistance to the war effort in Afghanistan, even though the meeting ended with no firm commitments on either.

The meeting in Krakow came amid intense diplomatic efforts to secure alternate supply routes to Afghanistan, to augment the main logistical lines through Pakistan which have been under increasing rebel attack.

Complicating matters further for the U.S. and for NATO, Kyrgyzstan, the site of a major U.S. air base used to fly troops and supplies to Afghanistan, on Friday ordered U.S. forces to depart within six months.

But Russia and several other Central Asian states have said they would allow NATO to ferry supplies by rail to the borders of Afghanistan, thus easing the supply squeeze faced by the alliance.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said a broader regional approach could one day include Iran.

Overtures to Russia
Earlier Friday, Gates said the new Obama administration wants to start fresh with Russia and the time is near to resume wider NATO cooperation with Moscow despite its invasion of Georgia last summer.

Russia was conspicuously absent from the gathering of NATO defense chiefs, but Moscow's agenda and its relations with neighbors and the United States were at the center of much of the discussion. U.S. goals — from new traction in Afghanistan to hanging onto a strategic air base in Kyrgyzstan to shielding allies from Iranian aggression — involve Russia.

Gates echoed an overture from Vice President Joe Biden.

"This administration does believe the time has come to reset the relationship with Russia and move forward," Gates said.

Gates, a former CIA director and student of the Soviet Union, is the only member of Republican George W. Bush's Cabinet asked by Obama to stay on.

Six months after the brief Russia-Georgia war, some Russian forces remain in disputed border areas. NATO suspended its practice of inviting Russian representatives to attend alliance meetings in protest of the war, but the chill is easing.

Both Gates and NATO's leader indicated that Moscow will be included again soon.

"The NATO-Russia group exists," Gates said. "I think that everyone has assumed that it will resume being a venue for dialogue between the alliance and Russia."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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