KABUL, Afghanistan – With visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates standing by his side, Afghan President Hamid Karzai sketched plans Monday for a peace conference next month aimed at ending the Afghan war and reintegrating insurgent Taliban fighters into mainstream society.

Karzai said reconciliation will be available for Afghans “who were forced into opposition, who have no ideological enmity to Afghanistan and its constitution, and who are not part of al-Qaeda network or other terrorist networks.”

Gates, commencing an unannounced visit to the war-ravaged nation, said he was “of like mind” with Karzai, agreeing that many insurgents are fighting either out of economic necessity or intimidation.

Many of those low-level fighters, Gates said, are already abandoning the conflict and reintegrating into society in the southern Afghan town of Marjah, where a combined U.S.-Afghan military offensive has recently pushed the Taliban from local power.

But the defense secretary cautioned that senior Taliban leaders, who have demanded that all foreign troops must leave the country as a precondition before they will attend peace talks, are unlikely to cooperate.

“I think we ought not to get too impatient,” Gates told reporters traveling with him on his plane before arriving in Kabul. “I do believe that the senior Taliban are only going to be interested in reconciling, in terms that are acceptable to the Afghan government and those of us supporting it, when they see that the likelihood of their being successful has been cast into serious doubt. My guess is they’re not at that point yet.”

Meanwhile, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, pledged Monday to retake the symbolic Taliban home ground of Kandahar in a campaign that builds on early signs of progress from the huge infusion of American and foreign forces.

“We’re absolutely going to secure Kandahar,” McChrystal said, adding that the Marjah offensive will serve as a model, in spirit if not in practice, for the larger, more complicated task of squeezing the Taliban in Kandahar and persuading Afghans to support the Kabul government instead.

“There won’t be a D-Day that is climactic,” McChrystal said. “It will be a rising tide of security when it comes.”

The Afghan war is in its ninth year and unpopular with a majority of Americans. The challenge for the Obama administration is to demonstrate clear progress against the entrenched Taliban insurgency this year, when the number of U.S. forces in the country will reach roughly 100,000 — nearly triple the size of the force when President Barack Obama took office.

For his part, Gates cited “bits and pieces of good news,” but cautioned against overconfidence.

“People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead,” Gates said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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