By Nic Robertson
While there are undoubtedly strong political (and financial) reasons for U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to set a firmer timetable for a change in mission of US forces in Afghanistan, they are probably not the whole story behind NATO’s evolving “end-game.”
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has already announced that his country's 3,600 troops deployed in Afghanistan will leave by the end of 2013 - a year early. That may have something to do with the fact that he is trailing badly in the polls ahead of presidential elections in April. But he is not alone. In Washington, London and Paris, Afghanistan is an unpopular war.
Panetta's suggestion that Afghan security forces can be capped now at just over 300,000 rather than the 350,000 target originally set is another indication of the prevailing mood. Money and popular support for the Afghan mission are in short supply. There's also an air of exasperation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai creeping in.
Sarkozy expressed it when he announced his sudden decision to get French troops out early – following the killing by an Afghan soldier of four French servicemen two weeks ago. The United States, too, has plenty of frustrations with Karzai, not least his recent attempts to stifle Washington's efforts to engage the Taliban in talks.
U.S. diplomats have long been criticized for not standing up to what are perceived as Karzai's wrong-headed policies, as well as his tantrums and whims. His latest plan to ignore the U.S. track for talks with the Taliban in Qatar and develop his own Saudi-hosted path is an effective slap in the face for President Barack Obama.
The United States wants many things out of these talks, not least a stable Afghanistan allowing an honorable exit for combat forces. But it also needs to set the conditions for what it was unable to agree to in Iraq - and that is to maintain a strategic regional foothold with large airbases and a troop presence. Iran is on one side of Afghanistan, Pakistan the other; and resource-hungry China also shares a border with Afghanistan.
So talks with the Taliban are not just about ending the war, they are about recognizing the Taliban's future political influence. They are, if the right conditions are set, about accepting the Taliban as political representatives of at least part of Afghanistan's majority Pashtoon population.
When Panetta talks about transitioning from combat to training operations by the end of 2013 he is also signaling to the Taliban U.S. combat forces will leave, and soon. For a long time the Taliban demanded foreign troops leave as a precondition for talks, a goal that is now in sight.
Panetta may be lowering other hurdles to a political settlement - although one at least appears inviolable: that the Taliban must renounce ties to al Qaeda.
Last year after much consideration, Obama signed off on exploring talks with the Taliban. Mullah Omar signed off on his side. A serious commitment had been made although there was (and still is) absolutely no guarantee of the outcome.
Now Karzai appears set to pursue his "alternate" Taliban talks track - at the very least, to muddy the waters and slow the talks process, and at worse scupper it altogether. If he successfully sabotages U.S.-Taliban talks, Washington can forget long-term strategic bases. The Taliban will make them unviable.
When NATO's combat forces pull out, the Taliban will, by talks or by fighting, expand their influence. Without some sort of political understanding, the Taliban will be able to obstruct resupply and every other part of the remaining U.S. and NATO mission.
A recently leaked NATO intelligence estimate that the Taliban are waiting to take power by force begins to look like a well-timed effort to undermine the transition that Panetta is in Brussels to discuss.
A western diplomat who talks directly to the Taliban told me recently "they [the Taliban] haven't made up their mind yet" whether to go for the "grand [political] bargain" or wait and "fight for control of the country." That view is echoed by Sherard Cowper Coles, the former British ambassador to Kabul.
The reason the Taliban may not want to fight for power could be pragmatic. When they took control of 95% of Afghanistan in the 90's they did it as much with Pakistani money - buying off enemy commanders - as they did in battle.
Mullah Omar's Taliban, the largest Taliban group also known as the Quetta Shura, the former Afghan government, the ones talking to the United States will not get that money now because Pakistan's military intelligence service, the ISI, does not trust them.
Sources say the ISI trusts and prefers to fund the much smaller Haqqani Taliban force. The Haqqanis have pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar publicly - but would likely be an adversary were he ever back in government.
Also the Taliban's ethnic foes in the North are far richer, better equipped and trained than the last time they fought, thanks to the North's close ties to the U.S. military. They pose a bigger challenge to Taliban (Pashton) hegemony than before.
So the question for these aging gray haired leaders who have been at war in some cases for up to 30 years is: Can they get better terms at the negotiating table?
Part of that calculation will be based on their assessment of the sincerity of the people sitting across the table from them.
Karzai may have cut across U.S. interests one time too many. Tough love is what some diplomats have advocated for his intransigence. An end to combat missions in 2013 will certainly be that, and the great unanswered question is: Will that be a bone the Taliban prefer to chew or bury?