Afghan President Hamid Karzai's bid to start peace talks with the Taliban, setting tough conditions which have failed before, offers little hope of bringing nearly 10 years of war to an end.
Mr. Karzai has long advocated talks with the insurgents, his spokesman has acknowledged two years of on-again-off-again contacts and the president recently unveiled a list of members of a High Peace Council to kick-start and manage any talks process.
Supporters of talks, who are spread from Kabul's presidential palace, across European capitals and to Washington, say the Taliban leaders are starting to reach out too. The Taliban are weary of fighting, their argument goes, mistrustful of the long-term intentions of their hosts in Pakistan and fearful that if they win total military control of Afghanistan, international support will dry up and a generation of young insurgents could marginalize them.
But the Taliban have the upper hand in military terms, despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops. There is widespread loathing of foreign forces and Mr. Karzai's government is largely seen as corrupt or incompetent.
The conditions Mr. Karzai is suggesting are more or less a repeat of the deal he has been trying to sell for years without success: lay down your arms, accept the constitution, renounce violence and al Qaeda, and in return get a place in my government.
"What will the Taliban gain from the talks and joining the government?" asked Daad Noorani, an Afghan writer and analyst.
"The Taliban regard themselves as victors of the war since they have control in the south, east and have infiltrated the north. Under such a situation I would call any hope a joke."
A large tribal jirga in June endorsed Mr. Karzai's plan for a peace council to try to coax Taliban leaders to talks while using cash and other aid to tempt foot soldiers to switch sides.
But the unrealistic conditions even prompted a senior former Taliban figure who has been involved in indirect talks in the past, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, to turn down an invitation to join the peace council, Mr. Noorani said.
"The Taliban do not recognize Mr. Karzai's government yet the government says 'come over, surrender your arms and accept the constitution'," said former prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai.
"It can't work this way. This is not making peace."
Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University who is in contact with insurgents, says Mr. Karzai's offer casts doubt on whether he and Washington are genuinely interested in pursuing a negotiated solution.
"The preconditions they have laid down are perceived by the Taliban as an invitation to surrender, which they are in no mind to accept," Mr. Waldman, an ex-defence and security adviser to the British and European parliaments, wrote to Reuters in an email.
Before and after their resurgence, the Taliban have demanded the expulsion of foreign forces as their condition for engaging in any talks with Kabul.
With Mr. Obama preparing for a drawdown of troop numbers from next July, some of those in Kabul believe they may have a unique window now, both to win over the Taliban and protect their country from years of even more damaging fighting.
The Taliban's success in the war comes despite the killing and arrest of some key figures in recent years, particularly following the surge of U.S. troops since last year.
The older Taliban who have survived might now be more willing to support a negotiated end to the war, in order to ensure a larger slice of peace-time power, some analysts say.
"If you don't talk to the Taliban now, increasingly their leadership is becoming more radicalized. You have got a lot of the Guantanamo generation coming in as commanders who are very close to al Qaeda and radicalized," said Pakistani author and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid.
"If you kill off all the older leadership and you don't deal with them, this new lot in two years will be in control and they will not want to talk at all and you will be in a much dangerous position," he said recently.
Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, on Wednesday said there had been regular contacts for two years between the Taliban and Kabul, either at the request of Taliban members or tribal chiefs.
But under Russian occupation, close family members fought on different sides of the war, while keeping channels of communication open.
"Behind the scenes talks" during the current conflict may be little more than this kind of family connections, aimed at keeping dead family to a minimum, avoiding damage to tribal set-up and devastation to villages.
There are also reports some Taliban do not trust Pakistan, long their backers and now their hosts. Islamabad, many Afghans believe, is seeking to manipulate the Taliban to influence Afghanistan's future as part of its rivalry with India.
Early this year, it arrested a number of top Taliban leaders, among them Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was involved in moving towards talks with Mr. Karzai's government, according to several Afghan officials.
Other Taliban fear they could be next if the winds of Pakistan's notoriously unstable political world change direction, and Mr. Karzai has played on this fear, indirectly warning them to either join the talks or risk detention in Pakistan.
But they also know they are Pakistan's best bet as it is through them that Isalambad can direct the shape up of any talks which then will have impact on Afghanistan's future.
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