British PM Gordon Brown said today that this week's international conference on Afghanistan is likely to endorse an effort at some kind of reconciliation with the Taliban. Stories like this and this make me doubt it can happen beyond the level of rank-and-file mercenaries; we're not going to see Mullah Omar in the Karzai cabinet anytime soon. The biggest problem is that the Taliban rightly think that they have the upper hand at the moment, and thus don't have much incentive to trade guns for politics. I tend to think our stated intent to begin leaving in July 2011 doesn't push them to the bargaining table, either; they'll gladly wait us out.
But writing in the new NYRB, Ahmed Rashid takes a different view:
There is another way of looking at the present crisis. Despite their successes, the Taliban are probably now near the height of their power. They do not control major population centers—nor can they, given NATO's military strength and air power. There are no countrywide, populist insurrections against NATO forces as there were against the coalition forces in Iraq. The vast majority of Afghans do not want the return of a Taliban regime despite their anger at the Karzai government and the general international failure to deliver economic progress. Many Afghans believe that as long as Western troops remain, there is still the hope that security can return and their lives change for the better.
Thus the next few months could offer a critical opportunity to persuade the Taliban that this is the best time to negotiate a settlement, because they are at their strongest.