End Game in Afghanistan?

What are we to make of it all? NATO, flying Taliban leaders to Kabul for talks. President Karzai, predicting Peace in Our Time. Zalmay Khalilzad, urging the U.S. to get tough with Pakistan. Taliban middle-managers by the score going to meet their virgins. Coalition forces kicking butt in Kandahar. Is this the end game in Afghanistan?

Momentous-sounding events have come tumbling out of the region in thick bunches lately. It turns out that the Afghan President has been chatting with selected members of the Taliban leadership for some time, and that these leaders have been given safe conduct passes and even transportation to Kabul by NATO. What's more, Karzai says "the neighbors" support the peace process he has initiated. Whenever Special K says "neighbors" he means Pakistan - though other neighbors, notably Iran, have piped up in support of the process and, wonder of wonders, the U.S. is welcoming Axis of Evil Iran to the table. According to AFP, Karzai told attendees at a development conference that, inshallah, there will be peace within two years.

But what of Pakistan? As my dear friend, Afghanistan expert Whitney Azoy, has written, the Pakistanis have been playing us for suckers for years. Are they still doing it? There have been reports that an angry Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been rounding up their Taliban buddies in Pakistan and heaving them into jail cells for having the gall to conduct talks with Karzai. The ISI, which is or is not under the control of the Pakistan government, wants it made clear that they will not be left out of any deals to end the conflict in Afghanistan.

And here is Zal Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, opining in the New York Times that Pakistan is deliberately sabotaging peace efforts so that Pakistan will be The Decider after U.S. forces have pulled out. Playing us for suckers indeed. Khalilzad, himself an Afghan and a close friend of President Karzai, points out how much money the U.S. has shoveled into Pakistan over the past decade and how little the Pakistanis have done in return to rein in terrorists on their soil. Khalilzad thinks the Obama Administration should "demand that Pakistan shut down all sanctuaries and military support programs for insurgents," or else. Or else what? Send forces into Pakistan with or without their consent to wipe out the insurgent havens. Hoo, boy!

Our missile-firing drones operate with Pakistan's blessing, but I don't think invading their country would speed an end to anything but the prospects for peace.

To his credit, Khalilzad also talks about the power of money -- money given, money not given -- to change minds and influence policies. Economic incentives and tough diplomacy seem vastly preferable to invasion.

Meanwhile, an "Afghan High Council for Peace" has been formed, and its spokesman says the council has a plan to begin talks with their "unhappy brothers," and he called on the international community and coalition forces to support the peace process.

In Kandahar, the war process is center stage. The intrepid Carlotta Gall reports that coalition forces have routed hundreds of Taliban fighters from their strongholds and forced the survivors to head for Pakistan, where they will be given safe haven by their friends and ours, the Pakistanis. Military commanders, reminded of last spring's ballyhooed but ephemeral "victory" in Marja, say, yeah, but this is different. We learned from Marja, they say, and we're doing Kandahar right.

The combination of high-level peace talks and high-pressure war may be indeed leading to the end game in Afghanistan. A Kabul settlement with the Taliban, constructive engagement with Iran on at least one front, and the withdrawal of U.S and NATO troops would bring far-reaching benefits. But beware the Pakistanis. They still hold the key, and unless we twist their arms and force them to use that key to unlock the door to peace, Afghanistan remains in play and in peril.