We should welcome the news that parts of the Taliban are reportedly open to the idea of negotiating a general ceasefire and even a peace settlement. The peace process in Afghanistan is fraught with challenges. But we owe it to the Afghan people, and to all those who have suffered in the conflict, to give it a try.
It would be a grave mistake to assume the Taliban would only settle for absolute power. Taliban leaders know they stand no chance of seizing power now or in the near future. They know that even coming close would reinvigorate the coalition of forces ranged against them. Even if they could seize power, they would be pounded by drones, ostracised and dependent on Pakistan. The leadership craves the opposite: safety, recognition and independence.
The Taliban rose to power in the 1990s, promising to bring order in place of turmoil. But since 2001 the expectations of ordinary Afghans have changed. They not only want order and justice, but also reliable public services, basic freedoms and a say over their own affairs. Antediluvian theocracy has had its day and thinking Talibs know it.
The Arab awakening has not gone unheeded. A Taliban think-piece leaked last year asked what kind of elections they should support and how the government should meet the people's needs. They yearn to be taken seriously as a credible, national political force.
The Taliban remains powerful in much of the country. But it has suffered big losses and is facing pressure, even armed resistance, from communities in provinces such as Ghazni, Laghman and Nangahar.
And although the impending withdrawal of foreign forces will allow the Taliban to claim some sort of success, it also removes the movement's biggest motivating force.
The justification for military action against the Taliban in 2001 was its sheltering of al-Qaeda. Today, most of al-Qaeda's leaders live in Pakistan and most analysts see the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaeda as fragile and insubstantial.
Last month Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, said: "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants good relations and mutual interactions with the world … [and] assures all the world that it will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against anyone." Or simply, we will not shelter al-Qaeda again. We might not take his word for it, but it suggests there is a basis for discussion.
The Taliban is not monolithic. Many members fight because they believe the United States seeks to conquer Afghanistan and subvert its religion or culture.
Some are driven by the degeneracy of the Afghan government and its warlord allies. Still others fight for personal, local or tribal reasons.
There are undoubtedly extreme elements within the movement, but broadly, the Taliban wants the withdrawal of foreign forces, a share of power and the implementation of sharia law. It probably seeks a major role in justice and anti-corruption and influence in social, religious and educational affairs.
But what exactly its demands are, and whether they are compatible with the aspirations of the Afghan people, is impossible to say until a genuine dialogue is under way.
A new study by the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence and security think-tank, suggests the Taliban might even accept a ceasefire and the presence of US forces in a peacekeeping capacity.
Talks could help to break down some of the misapprehensions that have inflamed the conflict. As in many other insurgencies, talks might also help to reduce the intensity of violence. In the absence of talks there is little reason to expect anything other than protracted conflict. And given the deficiencies of Afghan national security forces, we should expect the expansion of Taliban control in the rural south, southeast and west. All this explains why all polls and field research indicate that a clear majority of Afghans, both men and women, favour talks.
But as the troops and aid flows recede, so does the international community's ability to influence the parties, establish a peace process and protect the gains made since 2001. The involvement of agreed mediators or facilitators, now absent, could help to unblock talks.
Whatever the case, any future peace – whether achieved through a single settlement or patchwork of understandings – will only be sustainable if it reflects the aspirations of ordinary Afghans. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Matt Waldman was a United Nations official in Kabul in recent months, involved in promoting dialogue and reconciliation