With U.S. President Barack Obama's risk-laden controversial plan to first build up and then, in 18 months, start drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, every nation and political leader in the region now faces another pivotal moment.
At stake is whether the U.S. and its allies are willing to talk to the Afghan Taliban, because there is no military victory in sight and no other way to end what has been a 30-year war.
The Afghan Taliban are now a countrywide movement. During the past year, they expanded to the previously quiet west and north of Afghanistan. Their leadership has safe havens in Pakistan.
Casualties on all sides have risen dramatically. According to the United Nations, there were an average of 1,200 attacks a month by Taliban or other insurgent groups in 2009 - a 65-per-cent increase from the previous year. Over the 12-month period, 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed, an increase of 14 per cent; of those, two-thirds were killed by the Taliban, a 40-per-cent increase. In addition, U.S. and NATO combat deaths rose 76 per cent, from 295 in 2008 to 520 in 2009.
In the past, it has been hard to recruit Pashtuns for the Afghan army and police from the southern Pashtun provinces, which are largely controlled by the Taliban, although recently Pashtun recruitment has increased after a pay rise for security forces. Even so, the Taliban have infiltrated the Afghan army and police - the key components of the U.S. plan to start the handover of power to local forces by July, 2011.
The prevailing view in Washington, meanwhile, is that many Taliban fighters in the field can eventually be won over, but that the present U.S. troop surge has to roll them back first, reversing Taliban successes and gaining control over the population centres and major roads.
In other words, the U.S. military has to weaken the Taliban before negotiating with them. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has both a special fund of $1.5-billion to provide incentives and other forms of support to Taliban who put down their arms, and a group of British and American officers who are drawing up plans to win over Taliban commanders and fighters.
The prevailing view in Washington can also be seen in a diametrically opposite way. Despite their successes, the Taliban are likely now near the height of their power. They do not control major population centres - nor can they, given NATO's military strength and air power. Thus the next few months could offer a critical opportunity to persuade them that this is the best time to negotiate a settlement, because they are at their strongest.
A NEW TONE
Mr. Obama is clear about defeating al-Qaeda, but he is more inclined toward negotiations with the Taliban.
In his West Point speech last month, Mr. Obama said he supported Kabul's efforts to "open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens."
Gen. McChrystal told me in Islamabad earlier this month that many mid-level Taliban commanders and their men are waiting for President Hamid Karzai to announce a reconciliation strategy before they offer to change sides. "The reintegration of former Taliban into society offers a good chance to reduce the insurgency in Afghanistan … while al-Qaeda needs to be hunted and destroyed."
In December, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me he thinks about 70 per cent of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money, rather than ideology, and can be won over.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have shown some hints of flexibility.
For example, in the Taliban's response to Mr. Obama's West Point speech there was not a single mention of jihad or imposing Islamic law. Instead, the Taliban spoke of a nationalist and patriotic struggle for Afghanistan's independence and said they were ready to give legal guarantee if the foreign forces withdraw.
This new tone can be traced to secret talks in the spring of 2009. Sponsored by Saudi Arabia at Mr. Karzai's request, the talks included former (or now retired) Taliban, former Arab members of al-Qaeda and Mr. Karzai's representatives.
The U.S., British and Saudi officials who were indirectly in contact with the Taliban there quickly encouraged them to renounce al-Qaeda and lay out their negotiating demands.
In turn, the Taliban said distancing themselves from al-Qaeda would require the other side to meet a principal demand of their own: that all foreign forces must set a timetable to leave Afghanistan.
Significantly Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which has demanded a key part in the negotiations from its Saudi allies, has so far been left out. That now may be about to change.
Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have escalated in recent months as Washington demands that the Pakistani military "capture or kill" Afghan Taliban leaders as well as top militants in Pakistan.
Pakistan says it is too busy dealing with its own acute problems with the Pakistani Taliban and various insurgent groups. In fact, Pakistan would never launch a military offensive against the Afghan Taliban leaders since it has viewed them as potential allies in a post-American Afghanistan, when the U.S. will probably ditch Pakistan as well.
Pakistan's military is deeply fearful of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; the result could be mayhem in its backyard once again.
In a major policy shift, senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials say they have offered to help broker talks between Taliban leaders, the Americans and Mr. Karzai.
"We want the talks to start now, not in 18 months when they are leaving, but the Americans have to trust and depend on us," a senior officer told me.
This is an important change in Islamabad's official position. Despite the well-known connections between the ISI and the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has long denied it has influence over the Taliban leaders, and openly playing host to them was considered out of the question.
Pakistan is insisting that all negotiations with the Taliban leaders be channelled through the ISI. And Pakistan will not tolerate independent contacts made by U.S., British or Afghan intelligence agencies. It is unlikely that the CIA will accept such conditions.
In return, Pakistani officials said they want to be sure "that Pakistan's national interests are looked after" - interests that have yet to be spelled out to the Americans or Afghans.
The ISI has power over the Taliban. Not only are they able to resupply their fighters from Pakistan, and seek medical treatment and other facilities, but the families of most Taliban leaders live in Pakistan. Taliban leaders travel to Saudi Arabia on Pakistani passports. All this makes them vulnerable to ISI pressure. Before the U.S. military can consider co-opting mid-level Taliban commanders, both sides would have to ascertain how this would play with the ISI.
WILL IT WORK?
Talking to the Taliban requires more than just secret co-operation among intelligence agencies or the Central Intelligence Agency handing out bribes to Taliban commanders to change sides.
There is an urgent need for a publicly promoted strategy involving concrete efforts to build political institutions and provide humanitarian aid in ways that do not require intrusive Western control - a strategy that could attract many members of the Taliban, reduce violence and placate Afghans who are opposed to all such compromises.
U.S. officials have talked up the need for such a strategy but accomplished little during Mr. Obama's first year in office.
Yet unless such policies are carried out, the Taliban may conclude it is better and safer to sit out the next 18 months, to wait for the Americans to start leaving, and then, when they judge Afghanistan to be vulnerable, to go for the kill in Kabul - although that would only lead to renewed civil war.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist. He is the author of Taliban and, most recently, Descent into Chaos.Report Typo/Error
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