By CNN's Nic Robertson
The announcement of a Taliban office in Qatar has been a long time coming, and as recently as two weeks ago looked less than likely.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai withdrew his ambassador from Qatar just before Christmas, apparently unhappy that his Western allies - and principally the United States - were forging a channel for talks without his approval.
But the opening of the Qatar office does not mean the Taliban are about to surrender long-held positions and sign a peace deal. A Western diplomat who is in regular dialogue with Taliban figures told CNN they are far from throwing in the towel. He says they have not yet decided they can do better at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.
After battling their way to power in the 1990s, the Taliban held all but 5% of Afghan territory. They may now calculate that once the drawdown of Western troops is complete by 2014, Afghanistan's weak central state will be unable to hold them at bay.
However, the diplomat says it's not impossible the Taliban could enter a grand bargain with the Afghan government, and by default Western powers, that might even allow for the presence of some U.S. troops on Afghan soil beyond 2014. Such a deal is not impossible given current thinking, he said.
In September, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's Eid message struck a more conciliatory note than previously. While saying that peace was still some way off, he talked about an Afghan government in which "all ethnicities would have participation" and of the need to avoid civilian causalities.
His former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, told me at the time he saw this as a step toward a change in Taliban policy. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told me he didn't read Omar's message the same way, and said he would judge the Taliban leader by his actions.
Nevertheless, both President Obama and Mullah Omar have authorized their deputies to begin discussions.
Mullah Omar is under pressure, and has been since the first talks in 2008, to renounce al Qaeda. He has not, but he has made it clear his fight is an Afghan fight, not part of al Qaeda's global jihad. For his part, past demands include no talks until all U.S. and foreign troops fully withdraw from Afghanistan.
The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar underscores the point that progress, however glacial, is being made. The reality, as former British Ambassador to Kabul Sherard Cowper Coles said recently, is that without talks leading to peace and stability in Afghanistan, the United States would have a hard time convincing the world that its withdrawal was honorable.
Last fall, Omar's former foreign minister stressed to me the need for an "address" for the Taliban, a place where the international community could meet Omar's representatives. How could there be progress without that, he asked. Travel bans and the freezing of assets of top Taliban officials would also have to be lifted, he said. That has begun to happen.
And a Taliban office in Qatar is a clear indication that Pakistan's interests are increasingly being bypassed by a United States impatient to end the bloodshed in Afghanistan and get troops home.
One of the big stumbling blocks to getting meaningful talks going with the Taliban has been Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, according to the diplomat and several other well-placed sources. Ever since the first meeting between representatives of Omar and the Afghan government in Mecca in the fall of 2008, mediators have been frustrated at not being able to visit Omar or his top officials at their sanctuary and headquarters in Quetta, Pakistan.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia helped facilitate those first face-to-face discussions in Mecca but no real progress was made.
Sources tell CNN they believe Pakistan's ISI does not want Omar to get involved in peace talks unless Pakistan - meaning the ISI - is guaranteed a leading role. Pakistan wants a friendly and compliant regime in Kabul as part of its objective to have "strategic depth" in its historical rivalry with India.
The Taliban have often struggled with Pakistan's distinct agenda. In the late 1990s, Omar had already begun to ignore Pakistani advisers who trained, funded and helped launch the radical group half a decade earlier. The feeling may be mutual. According to the diplomat, Pakistani intelligence officers do not trust Omar to act in their interest.
The diplomat adds a cautionary note, something he has communicated to Omar's Taliban: Should they wind up as part of an Afghan government, they will face an insurgency from the ISI's chosen Taliban protégé, the Haqqani Network, which is currently an ally of the Taliban and an effective insurgent group.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network's leader, is more ruthless than his religious father and is unlikely to bend to Omar's will and respect old friendships. The diplomat says ISI leaders believe only Haqqani can deliver what they want.
The man now reputed to be in charge of representing Omar is Tayyab Agha. When Omar was in power in the late 1990s, Agha was his most trusted companion, the so-called gate-keeper to the Taliban leader. They are all older men now, with graying hair, and they wouldn't be the first revolutionary leaders to tone down fervor in favor of compromise.
The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar suggests a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan has not been abandoned by either side. But it is a small step on a long journey.