The US and the Afghan governments have - grudgingly - given their blessing to the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. It is flicker of a chance for peace. But will the US now engage more with other militant groups?
The office was opened, but the sign had to be taken down - there could be fewer illustrations of the complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan than the farce that surrounded last week's opening of the Taliban's new office in Doha, Qatar.
After agreeing initially that Afghanistan's rebel group could open an office in the Gulf state, President Hamid Karzai reacted furiously when the Taliban raised a flag and put up a sign proclaiming that they represented the "Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan" - the official name for Afghanistan the Islamist group used when they ran the country under a repressive regime from 1996 to 2001.
It looked, to all intents and purposes, like a government-in-exile had been granted recognition not only by Qatar, but by the US government, who had given its blessing to the office as a first step to new negotiations. After a decade of exile and classification as a terrorist organization, the Taliban was suddenly a political body with an international presence.
Despite these teething troubles, it seems clear that Washington, Kabul, and the Taliban are suddenly opening up to the idea of peace talks. To get even this far, all three have had to make significant concessions, points out Matt Waldman, analyst at the UK's Chatham House think tank.
While the US dropped its pre-condition that the Taliban publicly reject al Qaeda, the Afghan government gave up its concerns about the Doha office, and finally the Taliban dropped its public declaration that it would not engage with Karzai's government - "which had always been their public position," Waldman told DW. "Even though they have met with Karzai officials in the past."
The issue of the sign outside the Doha building in many ways goes to the heart of the conflict - does it mean that the Taliban's ultimate intention is to re-establish itself as the legitimate government of Afghanistan? "That's a very good question," says Waldman. "And one that needs to be put to Taliban negotiators, because if what they are seeking to do is simply to re-establish the emirate, then this process isn't going to go very far. But if they are willing to compromise there is some scope for dialogue, and perhaps there is the possibility of a peace agreement and even a power-sharing arrangement."
This isn't a completely fantastical possibility, he argues. After all, even the Taliban are realistic enough to realize that any claim to govern the whole country would re-ignite armed conflict, especially with the Northern Alliance. "Pragmatic elements in the Taliban realize that the Afghan population's expectations have changed, in terms of social services and basic freedoms, and they know that they alone cannot meet those expectations," he said.
Everyone is tired of war
Part of what is fuelling this new willingness to talk is of course universal war fatigue. "The US is certainly seeking to withdraw, and wants to bring this conflict to a close," said Waldman. "And you've seen on the side of the Afghan government that they're taking huge losses - some 250 soldiers and policemen a month are being killed. And obviously the Afghan population has been yearning for peace after decades of war and disorder. On the Taliban side also there are segments who really regret the harm that this is causing, and the resentment it leads to among Afghan communities."
"What a turnaround after 10 years of horrible fighting," comments Judy Dempsey, senior associate at think tank Carnegie Europe. "It reminds me of a time when nobody would talk to the IRA in Northern Ireland. And yet then Dublin and London realized they're not going to get any long-term peace if they don't actually talk to both sides. They did it with enormous persuasion and fantastic diplomacy, because they realized that if there's a war, they were never going to win it militarily."
Template for more talks with extremists?
But then again, Dempsey acknowledges that the situation in Afghanistan is completely different. "This war in Afghanistan has cost so many lives, and on the other hand it has given so much hope to girls and young women," she told DW. "And now the crunch time has come, and the Afghans themselves have to decide which road they want to go down."
Meanwhile in the US, the fact that President Barack Obama finds himself in a second term has led some to imagine that he may now be prepared to take more political risks in an attempt to resolve conflicts - in other words, talking to terrorists.
"I think it's completely different," says Dempsey. "So much depends on where these groups are based. And I don't think the US would be welcomed as the world's political negotiator anyway. Afghanistan is sui generis because the Americans are pulling out. This is their war, backed hesitantly, but backed nevertheless, by the Europeans. The other wars are entirely different, in that they don't have this huge American military involvement. That's why it can't be a template."
Waldman is also skeptical. "I think it is right for the US to engage with militant groups. It is often in their interests for that to happen," he says. "But I'm doubtful about it. The problem is once talks are made public, the various parties involved are conscious of a need to project an image of strength to their constituents, and that is not helpful for dialogue. They harden their positions, and that hinders progress."
Ultimately, then, perhaps the less we know about peace talks the better their chance of success.