ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT — US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said it was unlikely Taliban leaders would reconcile with Afghanistan's government but that lower ranking insurgents might be open to making peace with Kabul.
Gates welcomed plans announced on Sunday by President Hamid Karzai's government to launch a new bid at making peace with Islamist militants, but said Taliban chief Mullah Omar and other leaders would be reluctant to lay down their arms until circumstances changed on the battlefield.
"Just speaking personally, I'd be very surprised to see a reconciliation with Mullah Omar," Gates told reporters aboard his plane en route to India.
"I think it's our view that until the Taliban leadership sees a change in the momentum and begins to see that they are not going to win, that the likelihood of reconciliation at senior levels is not terribly great," he said.
Those who left the insurgency needed assurances that their families would be protected from retaliation, he said.
Gates and top commanders have said previously that reconciliation efforts stood little chance of success without halting the momentum of the insurgents.
Karzai's new reconciliation plan will be announced ahead of a major international conference on Afghanistan due in London on January 28, his spokesman Waheed Omar said on Sunday.
Conceding that past efforts at peace have failed, Omar said the new plan would include economic incentives as many Taliban fighters had joined for cash rather than to support a hardline religious ideology.
President Barack Obama's administration had not yet seen the details of Kabul's new initiative, but Gates said wooing insurgents was vital to resolving the war.
Karzai has long called for peace talks with the Taliban -- even offering government posts to its leaders -- but the insurgents have refused dialogue until the withdrawal of NATO-led troops on which Kabul relies for security.
Omar said the new plan would reach out to militants in all ranks, from the political leadership to fighters on the ground.
Gates also expressed cautious optimism about the results of US military operations in the southern Helmand province, where a force of thousands of Marines has tried to push the Taliban out of towns and villages.
"I think people are heartened by the early signs of the success of the Marines in Helmand, but its early yet and I don't think anyone is prepared to go too far in sort of talking about success down there."
The Marines in Helmand are part of a surge of 30,000 reinforcements ordered by President Barack Obama last month.
The deployment of the additional troops was on schedule, with about 92 percent of the additional forces due to be in place by the end of August, he said.