WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Osama bin Laden’s death could lead to a split between the Taliban and al-Qaida, sparking international peace talks with the Taliban this winter.

One stipulation to such talks is that the Taliban must renounce al-Qaida, and Bin Laden’s death may free up many fighters to do just that.

Gates, speaking to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said that bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar had a very close relationship, despite distrust of al-Qaida among some Taliban fighters.

“We know there are a number of Taliban who have no use for al-Qaida,” Gates said. “Their attitude is: ‘What has al-Qaida ever done for us except get us kicked out of Afghanistan?’”

If the two groups should splinter, Gates said, “You may actually, next winter, have the potential for reconciliation talks that are actually meaningful.”

That’s no excuse to ease back on the war throttle or rethink the drawdown timeline, he added.

“Al-Qaida is down, but it’s not out,” said Gates, who cautioned that between 2002 and 2006 the Taliban re-emerged when the U.S. let up. “If you leave these guys alone, or you don’t have any way to keep them down ... they do reconstitute themselves, they do come back.”

Gates also cautioned the low numbers of al-Qaida fighters reported in Afghanistan is “misleading” because there may be one al-Qaida foreign fighter working with hundreds of Taliban, teaching them how to build and plant improvised explosive devices, for example.

“If there is a reconciliation, which I think most people believe is the way this conflicts ends at some point, then that might allow for a faster drawdown of U.S. troops,” Gates said. “But as I say, I think it’s too early to tell.”

Already there are signs in recent months that more Taliban foot soldiers are ready to lay down arms and participate in the formal reintegration program.

“The flow has picked up again,” said British Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, director of the Force Reintegration Cell for the International Security Assistance Force, on a Thursday conference call.

The Afghan-led civilian program allows fighters to renounce violence in exchange for job training and other benefits. In December, Jones reported 800 official entrants. That has grown to roughly 1,700.

To have a real impact on the war, he said, the program needs more than 12,000 participants.

“Strategically, the numbers still remain modest, so let’s not get carried away,” he said. The program has “yet to bite into the insurgency.”

Afghan fighters usually give up and come into the program in small numbers consisting of a commander and fewer than 15 fighters, or groups from village clusters led by elders.

However, Jones said that on Wednesday a district governor in the northwest province of Bagdiz reported that another 200 people were preparing to enter the program, which follows an earlier mass enrollment of 400 participants there.

“We’re seeing it in Regional Command-East a lot more in the last 60 days. The governors are really picking this up,” said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, Regional Command East commander, in a satellite briefing to the Pentagon on Tuesday.

“I think because of ... the death of bin Laden, that there’s great potential, that there will be many people out there that will want to come back in. They’ve seen videos now of bin Laden sitting in a small room looking at a TV of pictures of himself up there, kind of alone and desperate, not this big leader that they thought that he was.”

Twitter: @StripesBaron

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