BEHIND THE SCENES: A TIMELINE
Winter, 2008-2009: Saudi overtures
Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeals to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to play a role in hosting talks between his government and the Taliban.
February, 2009: Secret rendezvous
The head of the Saudi intelligence service visits Kabul to discuss providing help. A few weeks later, a gathering of Afghanistan's clergy, the National Ullema Conference, issues a call for talks and formally asks the Saudis to take the lead. For much of the year secret conversations continue in Saudi Arabia with former or retired Taliban, former Arab members of al-Qaeda and influential Saudi Islamists who oppose al-Qaeda. U.S. diplomats stay in the loop but on the sidelines. There are no breakthroughs.
July, 2009: NATO plays a hand
British Foreign Secretary Ed Milliband, a key U.S. ally, comes out publicly in favour of negotiations with the Taliban in a speech to NATO, spelling out clearly what was in the minds of many of the 40 European countries that have troops in Afghanistan and want to get out. By now officials from international bodies such as the United Nations as well as several NATO countries are also having clandestine meetings outside Afghanistan with low- and mid-level Taliban representatives.
Autumn, 2009: Heavy hitters join in During the fasting month of Ramadan, for the first time active Taliban leaders based in Pakistan also visit Saudi Arabia and talk with Saudi and Afghan officials.
Meanwhile, a second channel opens in Kandahar, where the president's powerful brother Ahmed Wali Karzai begins secret talks with Taliban leaders based across the Pakistan border in Quetta, Baluchistan, including the Taliban's veteran second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Brader, who now virtually runs the main branch of the movement. Both men aim to keep the talks well away from the watchful eye of Pakistani intelligence (ISI), which offers the Taliban shelter but also monitors and pressures fighters and their families.
November, 2009: An opening from the insurgents
The Taliban show their first hint of public flexibility. In a 10-page statement, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar - while urging his fighters to continue the war against the U.S. - also pledges that a future Taliban regime would bring peace, non-interference and pose no threat to neighbouring countries.
The inference is that al-Qaeda would not return with the Taliban - a key U.S. and Afghan demand. The Pakistan military now urges the U.S. to talk to the Taliban directly with Pakistan's facilitation, but the Americans refuse, increasing the trust deficit between the CIA and the ISI.
February, 2010: Impatience, arrests, and a setback
Pakistan appears to have had enough of secret talks. In a joint operation with the CIA, the ISI arrests Mullah Brader in Karachi along with 23 other prominent Taliban. Mr. Karzai, furious, demands that Mullah Brader be extradited to Kabul; the ISI refuses.
The Taliban, cowed, cease talks and cut links with Kabul and Saudi Arabia temporarily. When Mr. Karzai visits Islamabad he is asked by Pakistan's military to reopen talks only through them. The ISI encourages Mr. Karzai to talk to the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, but talks flounder, partly because the U.S. adamantly opposes any dialogue with the al-Qaeda-friendly Mr. Haqqani.
Summer, 2010: 15-point plan
Talks continued with a delegation of the Hekmatyar faction of the Taliban, which comes to Kabul with a 15-point agenda. The government also organizes a peace conference in Kabul, with 1,600 delegates summoned from across the country.
September, 2010: Structures in place
Mr. Karzai appoints a 70-member High Peace Council, led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, which would ostensibly lead negotiations with the Taliban.
October, 2010: Out in the open
U.S. and NATO forces publicly provide safe escort for Taliban representatives to Kabul for "talks about talks" with the Karzai government.
Lahore-based Ahmed Rashid's seminal book Taliban has just been reissued in a 10th anniversary edition. His latest is Descent into Chaos .