Office in Qatar will help Taliban stall until 2014

The opening of communication lines with the Afghan group has been welcomed. But it remains to be seen if Afghanistan will experience genuine peace and prosperity after the American troop withdrawal.

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American leaders have welcomed this week's news that the Afghan Taliban will open a political office in Qatar to facilitate negotiations about an end to fighting in Afghanistan. "We welcome any step along the road of the Afghan-led process towards reconciliation," a White House spokesman said.

Readers will recognise in this position the time-honoured diplomatic practice of getting stuck with a lemon and making lemonade out of it. Optimists, beginning with the Obama administration, are suggesting that opening an office means the Taliban are now prepared to compromise; pessimists (or realists) say that it simply shows that they are prepared to stall. US troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014; plainly the Taliban is capable of talking for two years.

And yet after almost a decade of allied effort in Afghanistan, what other solution presents itself? Prolonging the US-led western effort is impossible, and President Hamid Karzai's government is vacillating, corrupt, and squabbling with several of its own regional capitals.

In a March of 2010 speech at the West Point military academy, Barack Obama set out America's goals in Afghanistan: "We must deny Al Qaeda a safe-haven … reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government [and] strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government." How sadly unrealistic all that seems today. The bad old days of relentless theocracy, poverty for all and the demolition of ancient monuments may well be on the way back, with alarming implications for countries across the region.

Campaigning for the presidency in 2000, George W Bush promised to shun "nation-building" abroad, saying such projects were neither practical nor in the US national interest.

The September 11, 2001 attacks made him change that view. But his original assessment (which is heard again today from long-shot Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul) now seems remarkably sensible.

Can anything be salvaged? The Karzai government does have some cards to play, and will have in future - access to foreign aid, for one. The Taliban too must be weary of fighting, and so modest compromises may prove possible.

But what a pathetically small hope that is to cling to, after almost a decade of death and desolation.