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U.S. Plays Down Hopes For Afghan Reconciliation

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (right) and Admiral Michael Mullen at a hearing in Washington today.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (right) and Admiral Michael Mullen at a hearing in Washington today.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today the timing was still not right for reconciliation with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, acknowledging military pressure had yet to weaken the group enough.

"The shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are in fact going to lose," Gates told lawmakers during a congressional hearing.

"And it's when they begin to have doubts whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal. I don't think we're there yet," he added.

Gates's comments, upholding Washington's long-standing concerns, came the same day a negotiator for one of Afghanistan's main insurgent groups, Hezb-e Islami, said its leadership was ready to make peace and act as a "bridge" to the Taliban, if Washington fulfills plans to start pulling out troops next year.

Hezb-e Islami negotiator Mohammad Daoud Abedi told Reuters the decision to present a peace plan was taken as a direct response to a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama in December. Obama announced plans to deploy an extra 30,000 U.S. soldiers but set a mid-2011 target to begin a withdrawal.

"There is a formula: 'No enemy is an enemy forever, no friend is a friend forever,' " Abedi said. "If that's what the international community with the leadership of the United States of America is planning -- to leave -- we better make the situation honorable enough for them to leave with honor."

U.S. officials have repeatedly said a U.S. withdrawal will be gradual, at a speed that will depend on conditions on the ground and depend on Afghanistan's ability to provide for its own security.

dmiral Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top U.S. military officer, cautioned against over-optimism created by reconciliation talk in congressional testimony today. He said the U.S. war effort was not "going to end rapidly."

"I worry about the sort of hope that gets created immediately when you see a little light here that this is going to end rapidly," Mullen told lawmakers. "I just don't see that. This is a tough, very tough part of the process."