Leading article: The Afghan endgame begins

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Any attempt to form a coherent picture of what is going on in and around Afghanistan becomes more complex by the day. Reports of talks between the President, Hamid Karzai, and that part of the Afghan Taliban represented by Mullah Omar suggest that, finally, the strategy of "talking to the Taliban" might at least be starting to bear fruit.

That these talks, or talks about talks, are said to have the blessing of the US commander in the field, General David Petraeus, is another sign that the political part of an endgame might have begun. The general's appetite for talks has not been apparent in the four months since he took over the command. This, it seems, has changed.

But much else has changed, too. If reconciliation of a kind is being broached inside Afghanistan, the same cannot be said of the US approach to Pakistan. The frequency and success of drone attacks appears to have increased. These attacks are contentious, because they are seen as risk-free to the perpetrator and liable to go astray. If the US is, as it claims, destroying camps in Pakistan then the balance of advantage has changed – but so has the politics. The US has, in effect, given up attempts to keep Pakistan on its side.

These two developments, the talks and the raids, prompt another question. How far is either, or both, connected with Pakistan's closure of the Khyber Pass and the almost daily attacks on the trapped Nato supply convoys? Are they, as is generally believed, Pakistan's response to the raids? Or are they rather an attempt to thwart possibly substantial talks between Mr Karzai and the Afghan Taliban?

Either way, the attacks on the convoys are costly for Nato – in practical terms, because of the losses, and in image terms, because of the vulnerability they expose. After nine years, the Western forces are no closer to victory than they ever were. The Prime Minister conveyed a similar message yesterday. While Afghans were not ready to take over their own security, Britain was not in Afghanistan to build a perfect democracy – "no dreamy ideas; just hard-headed national security". British combat forces would not be in Afghanistan after 2015.

What Afghanistan looks like then will be its own judgement on 14 years of war. And if the processes now beginning result in President Karzai effectively sharing power, or even losing it to Mullah Omar's men, the usefulness of the whole engagement would be called into question. It is a price, though, that might have to be paid for bringing this sorry enterprise to an end.

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