Afghan President Hamid Karzai is planning an ambitious Western-backed reconciliation package aimed at tempting fighters away from their Taliban masters by offering money and jobs to draw them back to civilian life.
"The Taliban, we recognize, are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point," Gates said during a visit to Pakistan on Friday.
"The question is whether they are prepared to play a legitimate role in the political fabric of Afghanistan going forward, meaning participating in elections, meaning not assassinating local officials and killing families. "The question is what do the Taliban want to make out of Afghanistan?" he added in comment to reporters. "When they tried before we saw before what they wanted to make and it was a desert, culturally and every other way."
Karzai told the BBC in an interview shown on Friday that major powers would fund his new scheme to tempt Taliban fighters to lay their weapons aside and head home to their communities and integrate into legitimate society.
The United States and Britain would announce at a major conference on Afghanistan in London next week that they had decided to back his plan, the president said, adding Japan would also offer financial backing.
Hardline Taliban supporters and those who were members of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups would not be accepted into the scheme, the president said -- something Washington has also repeatedly stressed.
Gates had said earlier this week that it was unlikely Taliban leaders would reconcile with Afghanistan's government but that lower ranking insurgents might be open to making peace with Kabul.
"Reconciliation and reintegration are really two different things," Gates said in an interview with Pakistan's Express television station Thursday.
"Reintegration is really focused at the lower-level Taliban, many of whom fight for money or to protect their families.
"And if we can offer them a job, if we can offer security for their families, we believe that a number of these fighters can be reintegrated.
"Reconciliation tends to apply to the senior-most members of the Taliban. I think that for some of them to consider reconciliation on Afghan government terms, they will have to see that the momentum of the conflict has changed against them."