Each side wants to bargain from a position of maximum strength, and for the foreseeable future, that means trying to inflict maximum pain. Each seems to be betting that the staying power of the other is limited - by domestic politics, regional dynamics and the cost of the conflict in money and blood. The main advantage of the Taliban, arguably, is that their fighters are a permanent part of the landscape.
U.S. military commanders here see signs that their aggressive "capture or kill" operations have rocked the Taliban - and pushed some of the insurgents to consider negotiations with President Hamid Karzai. This Special Forces campaign involves 125 to 150 operations each month, a senior military official said here Saturday, adding that in the last four months, 525 insurgents had been detained or killed, including 130 who are at the level of district commander or above.
"The argument within the Taliban is about resolving the conflict," says the military official, citing prisoner interrogations and other intelligence. "They want to figure out what the conditions would be," he explained, including such issues as: "How do we do it? Will we be part of the (Afghan) government? Will we fear for our lives?"
Taliban prisoners have told U.S. interrogators that this pounding in Afghanistan - coupled with attacks by Predator drones on their safe havens in Pakistan - has taken a psychological toll. According to the senior military official, lower-level fighters complain, "Hey, we're doing all the dying out here?" and ask their commanders, "How much longer can we put up with this?"
But top administration officials, starting with President Obama, expressed skepticism over the weekend that Taliban leader Mohammad Omar is willing to make any serious compromises yet. CIA Director Leon Panetta cautioned Sunday on ABC's "This Week": "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation." The U.S. strategy is to keep firing away, in the hope that the enemy will be more pliable by 2011, when Obama plans to begin withdrawing American troops.
The inner circle of the administration has begun its own debate about a strategy for Afghan political reconciliation. Obama has publicly supported reconciliation, but with some significant preconditions. And while he has said that this process should be "Afghan-led," the U.S. also wants to steer the process in the direction most favorable to its interests.
Complicating the situation for both the U.S. and the Taliban are the recent discussions between Karzai and Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the Pakistani army chief. The Pakistanis would like to broker any settlement in Afghanistan. They appear to have has some success in convincing Karzai that, given Obama's July 2011 timetable to begin withdrawal, Pakistan is their most reliable long-run partner.
The Taliban has developed its own version of a "population-centric" strategy to win Afghan hearts and minds. The military official in Kabul cited intelligence reports that Omar has ordered his fighters to curb corruption, reduce civilian casualties and run more effective local courts. Taliban leaders who were unpopular or ineffective have been recalled from the battlefield, the U.S. official said.
Both the U.S. and the Taliban have set heavy preconditions for negotiations, which for now have stymied serious dialogue. The U.S. insists that Taliban fighters disarm, renounce any links with al-Qaeda and accept the human-rights provisions of the Afghan constitution. The Taliban demands the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
For now, those demands have produced an impasse. But some U.S. advocates of reconciliation see signs that Omar may be ready to distance the Taliban from al-Qaeda. One official cites an interview conducted in March by Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad that appeared in Asia Times Online, in which an anonymous Taliban official describes Osama bin Laden as "just an individual" and said the U.S. was using him as an excuse to avoid real talks.
In the Pashtun culture, reconciliation is possible when there is a gundi, or balance of power, that conveys mutual respect and security. So far, neither the U.S. nor the Taliban has a reconciliation strategy that could be articulated so succinctly.
David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.