The US will begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July [AFP]

Military pressure on the Taliban could lead to "real opportunities" for peace talks with leaders of the Afghan fighters within a year, Robert Gates, the outgoing US defence secretary said.

"My own view is that the political opportunities will flow from military pressure," Gates said on Saturday at a security conference in Singapore, prior to leaving for Kabul as part of a final world tour before stepping down later this month.

In the clearest signal yet of efforts to seek reconciliation with the Taliban, Gates said the gains on the Afghan battlefield were laying the groundwork for talks with the group.

He said US-led forces had rolled back the Taliban out of its bastions in the south and there was mounting evidence that they were suffering setbacks on the battlefield.

"If we can sustain those successes, if we can further expand the security bubble, (if) we have enough evidence that the Taliban are under pressure that their capabilities are being degraded, then perhaps this winter the possibility of some kind of political talks or reconciliation might be substantive enough to offer some hope of progress," Gates said.

Gates's comments follow reports that the US has begun a secret engagement with the Taliban as it begins to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July as part of a process to hand over all combat operations to Afghan security forces by 2014.

Officials in several countries have said there have been contacts, although these do not yet constitute a peace process.

Taliban 'cannot win militarily'

Gates, on Saturday, stressed that for the Taliban to have any political role in the war-torn country, the group must accept that they will not win the military campaign against the US and its allies.

The Taliban must also cut ties with al-Qaeda and surrender all their arms if they are to have any political say in the future of the country, he added.

"I think there is a generally accepted view that primarily all conflicts of this kind eventually come to a close with some kind of a political settlement," Gates said.

"But the reality is, in my view, that the prospects for a political settlement do not become real until the Taliban and the other adversaries, the Afghan adversaries, begin to conclude they cannot win militarily."

Violence is at its highest in Afghanistan in years with the Taliban carrying out a wave of attacks across the country including the relatively peaceful regions of the north and west, despite coming under pressure from a surge of US troops in their southern bastions.

Support for the war in western countries has, at the same time, fallen with many in the US saying that with Osama bin Laden eliminated and al-Qaeda no longer a dominant player in Afghanistan, the costly involvement had served its original purpose.

The death of bin Laden in Pakistan last month - after being sheltered by the Taliban earlier on - is seen as helping the reconciliation process with the Taliban who are focused on ridding their homeland of foreign forces rather than a global agenda of jihad that bin Laden's al-Qaeda had pursued.

Source: Agencies