As so often with the war in Afghanistan, one statement can be open to wildly different interpretations. Thus President Hamid Karzai's disclosure that the US is engaged in talks with the Taliban was dismissed by some as more of the same old posturing. For others, it was no more than a restatement of the obvious. Yet there is something new here. It is not the fact of contact between the US and the Taliban – which has been an on-off saga of long standing – but the fact that confirmation of talks came from Mr Karzai, who has long been lukewarm, if not hostile, to the very idea.
The Afghan President's remarks to journalists in Kabul at the weekend contained several other new elements. Not only did he admit that talks had been going on, but he called them "peace talks", spoke positively of the progress made, and said that the US military was also involved. There was a new tone, as well as new information.
That there is no possibility of peace in Afghanistan unless the Taliban are included in any settlement has been widely accepted for some time. Back in 2007, a British and an Irish diplomat, working for the UN and the EU respectively, were expelled after apparently putting out feelers to Taliban representatives – perhaps more successfully than they were supposed to. The impetus for their expulsion was said to have come from US intelligence, but it could equally well have come from Mr Karzai.
After Barack Obama took over the White House in 2009, his adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Richard Holbrooke, repeatedly insisted on the need to engage the Taliban, proposing a distinction between the "moderate" majority who should be wooed, and the jihadist minority, to whom no quarter should be given. That became official US policy, but it never appeared to enjoy the full support of US commanders, who gave the impression of continuing to strive for outright victory or nothing. Hence the knots in which US Afghan policy increasingly seemed to be tied.
The death last month of Osama bin Laden, who had been tracked down to a family compound in Pakistan, changed many calculations. It strengthened Mr Obama's authority domestically, because he had achieved what his predecessor, George Bush, had tried so hard to do. It allowed the US to draw a clearer distinction between al-Qa'ida, which had now been decapitated, and the Taliban – a distinction which made talks with the Taliban more tolerable. And it clears the way for the incoming US Defence Secretary and arch-pragmatist, Leon Panetta, to put Afghan policy on a fresh footing.
Above all, though – given that Bin Laden was found sheltering in Pakistan – it called into question the rationale for foreign troops to remain much longer in Afghanistan. It increased pressure on Mr Obama to meet his provisional timetable for troop withdrawal, if not to accelerate it. And this in turn drove home the message to Mr Karzai and his failing government that the US might not be there to shore up his position indefinitely.
Suddenly, there is a prospect for the stalemate of at least three years to be broken. For talks – peace talks, even, as Mr Karzai termed them – to yield any kind of settlement, however, several conditions must be met. The first is that the US administration, including the military, can agree on the end and the means. A second is that Mr Karzai and the Afghan government sign up, and a third is that both they and the Americans talk to Taliban leaders who can deliver – not, as embarrassingly emerged earlier this year, to a shopkeeper from Quetta. None of this will be simple, but Mr Karzai's statement is the best evidence yet that a start has been made and that the endgame might finally have begun.Reuse content