NEW YORK // The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, began a four-day visit to the United States yesterday that will likely determine the size of any "residual" American military presence after the 2014 deadline for the end of US combat operations in the country.
Also sure to be at the top of the agenda in his meetings with the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton tomorrow and President Barack Obama on Friday are efforts for a negotiated end to the war.
After a lull of nearly a year, there have been signs that reconciliation talks between the Afghan government, Taliban factions, Pakistan and other major stakeholders have picked up as the 2014 deadline looms.
US and Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban as proxies and of hindering the political process, but recent reports suggest that Islamabad has become more willing to work with Kabul and Washington to avert a devastating civil war that would spill across its borders.
It emerged last month that a document reportedly drafted jointly by Afghan and Pakistani officials outlines a peace road map. And last week, Pakistan's powerful military signalled a shift of policy focus away from arch-rival India and towards the fight against militancy in the country and stability in Afghanistan.
Another important development came last month in France, where Taliban representatives met for the first time with the Afghan High Peace Council, an official body supported by the Karzai government but not made up of its members.
But the launch of multi-party negotiations - let alone a political settlement that will end decades of war in Afghanistan - is still far from assured.
"Everyone is in a state of desperation and a military victory has been given up by all actors and what they're now doing is showing more flexibility", said Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "Kabul, Islamabad and Washington have realised that if they hold back there will be neither a military victory nor a political solution, and that is a recipe for the next civil war in Afghanistan.
"So all of this together is probably the closest they've ever gotten to a reconciliation process," he added.
US officials have said that a decision could be reached during Mr Karzai's visit on how many troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
"No regional country wants a complete withdrawal to zero, even Iran," Mr Yusuf said. "Everyone thinks the next civil war will come out of a vacuum created by a complete US withdrawal, and the worst thing that could happen right now is if a signal goes out that Afghanistan will be 'abandoned' again."
The number of residual US troops will likely hinge on whether the Afghan government agrees to grant them immunity from local law, something Mr Karzai has said he would not allow. US officials have said a refusal of immunity would force them to end their military presence.
The White House is under pressure from the public and tightening military budgets to keep as small a force as possible, one that would primarily conduct counter-terrorist operations against Al Qaeda and ensure that the Taliban cannot take the capital.
The Obama administration reportedly has reduced the possible size of any residual forces to between 3,000 and 9,000 troops. But US military officials and the Pentagon supported keeping at least 9,000 troops, because of the risks posed to service members by maintaining only a few thousand combat troops.
"The focus [of Mr Karzai's visit] may be on getting the US on board with the Afghan-Pakistan-led peace plan, and then talking about troop levels," Mr Yusuf said. "Or if he feels the US is going to be in charge of the process, then much more time will be spent [on troop numbers]."