It's too early to jump to any conclusions about talks with the Taliban, for the following reasons:
- It's not exactly new. NATO forces and the Afghan government have already been trying to get Taliban commanders to defect to the government side. In some cases, such as Mullah Abdul Salaam, they've been successful. These defections couldn't happen if there were no quiet talks happening already.
- Which part of the Taliban are we talking about? Certainly, the Taliban as a movement is vulnerable to a divide-and-conquer strategy. Many of the ambitious clan leaders who have joined the Taliban might drop the mask of revolutionary Sunni doctrine if they get a far better offer. The core of the movement, the doctrinal purists that coalesced around Mullah Muhammed Omar, are a much tougher sell. So, too, would be Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, which seems to believe firmly and sincerely that it will always have more clout as a foil to the Karzai regime than as its ally.
- Is the Taliban interested in peace talks? Given their recent successes, Taliban commanders are much less likely to negotiate seriously. However, they might come to the negotiating table simply to be intransigent, and in the process, humiliate the Karzai government. We need to be wary of replaying the worst days of Vietnam War-era talks with the intransigent North Vietnamese government.
- What's the Afghan government's interest? Getting the Taliban, in part or in its entirety, to the negotiating table is a means to an end. But what does the Afghan government want from the Taliban? It's hard to believe that Karzai's brother was trying to get the Taliban to surrender. The real topics under discussion might be as prosaic as prisoner exchanges, or as ambitious as a temporary cease-fire.
- What's the US and NATO interest? And does it gibe with what the Afghan government wants?
I don't want to sound like a complete party-pooper. The offer of negotiations is important, if for no other reason than to give potential defectors an easier time of quitting the Taliban. However, I'd hate to see expectations get too high, if negotiators spend the first few months arguing over the shape of the table.