In the past couple of weeks, a corner was turned that eventually could bring the war in Afghanistan to an end through a negotiated settlement. After years of insisting that the Taliban had to be degraded and beaten into submission before any negotiations, the United States and NATO military forces facilitated the arrival of senior Taliban officials in Kabul to hold talks with President Hamid Karzai.
But the media hype and praise that was lavished on U.S. commander General David Petraeus - The Washington Post described him in Caesar-like terms as a "warrior-statesman" - overlooked the long-hidden history of these "talks about talks," not to mention the breathtaking array of hurdles before the slightest progress is made. Talks between the Taliban factions and Mr. Karzai have been going on for the past two years, but have barely moved forward, while involving a dizzying array of countries and characters (see timeline below).
It began in late 2008, when Mr. Karzai started seeking a way out of what looked like a never-ending war. Facing massive criticism at home and abroad for poor government, wasting development aid and running a corrupt regime, he was looking for a coup de foudre that in one stroke would end the war, reconcile the Taliban, thwart Pakistan and restore his reputation. He had given up believing that the U.S. could ever win the war, provide sufficient resources or deal squarely with Pakistan.
Since then, his government has held talks with all three of the main factions of the Taliban, but none has moved toward real negotiations. Today's Taliban is divided into the mainstream group that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, and its two allies, the rival networks of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. All three have been provided sanctuary and support since 2001 by Pakistan's military and/or its Interservices Intelligence (ISI).
The mainstream Taliban remains much what it was before 2001 - a peasant-based, Pashtun movement from the most conservative, backward parts of southern Afghanistan (roots shared by Mr. Karzai). Its limited political agenda still revolves around the imposition of Islamist law and jihad against the foreign occupation.
Mr. Hekmatyar entered talks with Mr. Karzai in 2006, but does not control enough territory or population to be more than minimally significant. And the U.S. has been especially opposed to talks with Mr. Haqqani because he is close to al-Qaeda. But he is the ISI's favourite because of his militant stance against expanding Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Now extremely ill, Mr. Haqqani, 67, has handed over command to his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, who exerts major influence in half a dozen provinces, has terrorized eastern Afghanistan and learned from al-Qaeda the skills of urban terrorism.
The major missing factor until now was American support. The mantra of all three successive U.S. commanders in the first two years of Barack Obama's administration was that all negotiations had to be deferred until the Taliban were weakened and the U.S. could speak from a position of strength.
The U.S. supported reintegration - paying off surrendering Taliban with job offers and aid - but not reconciliation, or power sharing. Reintegration has been part of Mr. Karzai's government's policy since 2005, but he failed to set up a strategy for it or to train Afghans to run it, even though donors promised funding.
The NATO gesture this month was the first step toward what Mr. Obama has to face in his December policy review - whether the U.S. will continue playing a supporting role in Mr. Karzai's negotiations or actually talk to the Taliban themselves. The Taliban are desperately keen to talk to the U.S. directly, and for many Afghans only the direct involvement of the U.S. would give them hope that priorities such as a humane constitution, education and women's rights would not be bargained away by Mr. Karzai to retain a hold on power.
There is now a widespread perception that the Taliban are winning the war, while the Europeans want out and even the U.S. will start withdrawing its forces from July, 2011. So why should the Taliban want to negotiate now, when they could just as easily sit it out until Western powers leave Afghanistan? NATO would like to believe that the Taliban are demoralized, but the truth is more complex.