U.S. And NATO Back Afghan Taliban Outreach

(Reuters)

BRUSSELS - U.S. and NATO leaders said on Thursday they were ready to help Afghan President Hamid Karzai pursue reconciliation with the Taliban, but cautioned that it was a complex process that may not bear fruit.

Speaking a day after a senior NATO official said the military alliance was already assisting Karzai's outreach to senior Taliban leaders, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Washington would do "whatever it takes" to get the peace process on track.

"We have always acknowledged that reconciliation has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan and we will do whatever we can to support this process," Gates told a news conference at a NATO meeting in Brussels.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged caution about reports of progress on the reconciliation front, calling it "a complex effort that is just beginning."

"There are a lot of different strains to it that may or may not be legitimate or borne out as any bona fide reconciliation," she said.

"We are not ready to make any judgement whether any of that would bear fruit."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Western military alliance, which now has about 150,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, was ready to facilitate talks with senior Taliban leaders.

"Our position is that if we can facilitate this process through practical assistance, then why not. If we get a request, then we are prepared to do that," Rasmussen said, although he added it would be important to keep up military pressure.