Is it credible to expect elements within the Afghan Taliban to beat their weapons into ploughshares? David Miliband certainly believes so. The Foreign Secretary gave a speech at Nato headquarters in Brussels yesterday urging Afghanistan's leaders to reach out to more moderate Taliban insurgents. This echoes sentiments expressed earlier this year by Barack Obama and his top general, David Petraeus, suggesting that there is scope for offering an amnesty to less committed fighters if it helps to end the insurgency.
Taking the fight to the militants of Afghanistan while simultaneously offering truce terms appears contradictory, but it makes sense given the incoherent nature of the Taliban. The insurgents are not a solid bloc, but rather a motley mixture of hardcore Islamists, mercenaries, drug traffickers and others who fight the Afghan government in the belief that the Taliban will ultimately prevail.
It is sensible to attempt to split off the moderates from the hardcore elements with offers of amnesty and incorporation into Afghanistan's conventional security forces. Indeed, it seems that Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul is already cutting such deals. Yesterday it announced the signing of a truce with insurgents in Badghis province in the north-west of the country.
Yet such overtures remain politically sensitive. Two Western diplomats (one working for the United Nations, the other for the European Union) were expelled by the Karzai government in late 2007 for engaging in informal contacts with the Taliban. There is a danger that Western governments, in pushing for engagement, will make Karzai look like a puppet ruler. Such a perception would be the kiss of death, not only for President Karzai, but also Western hopes of stabilising Afghanistan.
There is no shortage of reasons to dislike the Karzai regime. In recent years it has proven itself corrupt, incompetent and soft on human rights abuses. President Karzai has made one brutal Tajik warlord, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, his running mate for next month's elections. But if Nato is to have any chance of convincing ordinary Afghans that it is working in their interests, rather than its own, it has no alternative but to work with Karzai's administration. Any initiative to talk with insurgents must be seen to come from Kabul.
This flurry of peacemaking gestures comes as the first stage of the Afghan "surge" comes to a close. The British Army announced an end to Operation Panther's Claw yesterday, with claims that a sizeable area of northern Helmand province has been cleared of militants. This has come at a price. Twenty British soldiers have been killed this month. And, as our poll shows today, that has damaged British public confidence in the Afghan mission. But we ought not to overlook the fact that Afghan civilian casualties have also risen drastically in recent weeks as the Taliban has increased its attacks to destabilise the country. Protecting those civilians is still a worthy and honourable mission. And while the Taliban remains unpopular it is still a feasible one.
Success will depend on political resolve – and leadership. There was a somewhat worrying tone in Gordon Brown's comments yesterday. The Prime Minister seemed to be suggesting that the worst is now over. This idea is a dangerous delusion. The truth is that the project of stabilising Afghanistan is only beginning. And we need our leaders to be clear-eyed and open about the sacrifices to come.