KABUL, Afghanistan -- Suddenly, the effort to strike a deal with the Taliban is very publicly back on the front burner.
Frozen for months last year as another fighting season raged in Afghanistan, and as election-year politics consumed American attention, diplomats and political leaders from eight countries are now mounting the most concerted campaign to date to bring the Afghan government and its Taliban foes together to negotiate a peace deal.
The latest push came early this month at Chequers, the country residence of the British prime minister, David Cameron, who joined President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan in calling for fast-track peace talks. Weeks earlier in Washington, Mr. Karzai met with President Obama and committed publicly to have his representatives meet a Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, to start the process.
Yet so far the energized reach for peace has achieved little, officials say, except to cement a growing consensus that regional stability demands some sort of political settlement with the Taliban, after a war that cost tens of thousands of Afghan and Western lives and nearly a trillion dollars failed to put down the insurgency.
Interviews with more than two dozen officials involved in the effort suggest a fast-spinning process that has yet to gain real traction and seems to have little chance of achieving even its most limited goal: bringing the Afghan government and Taliban leadership together at the table before the bulk of the American fighting force leaves Afghanistan in 2014.
"The year 2014 has begun to be seen as a magical date, both inside and outside Afghanistan," said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan national security adviser. "It's difficult to find what is realistic and what is illusion."
That is not least because the major players -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban -- have fundamentally different visions of how to achieve a post-2014 peace, according to accounts of setbacks in the process.
For the Afghans, the simple act of considering what a peace deal might look like has inflamed factional differences that are still raw two decades after the country's civil war.
The Afghan High Peace Council, which Mr. Karzai has empowered to negotiate for his government, has put forward a document called "Peace Process Roadmap to 2015." While many Afghan leaders say they have not seen the proposal, first reported by McClatchy in December, those who have view it as outlining a striking number of potential concessions to the Taliban and to Pakistan. They include provisions for the Taliban's becoming a political party and anticipation that some of the most important government positions could be open to them, including provincial governorships, police chief jobs and cabinet positions.
Some Western commentators as well as Afghans view this as returning to the past or opening the door to a division of the country. Senior members of the powerful Tajik and Hazara factions, both of which suffered greatly under Taliban rule, charged that they had been left out of the deliberations. When they are asked about striking a peace deal, they make veiled references to a renewal of ethnic strife.
"The president is acting on an ethnic basis," said Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, a powerful ethnic Hazara leader from northern Afghanistan. "He is trying to win the hearts of a group of Taliban so they back him in the election."
Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, the ethnic group predominant in the Taliban. Mr. Spanta, the national security adviser, countered that any realistic attempt to end a war involves compromise. "I think peace in a country after 33 or 34 years has a price -- a very heavy price," he said. "But we are paying a heavy price every day with our lives."
One factor fueling the peace drive is that Pakistan, long considered the Taliban's silent sponsor, professes to have had a change of heart. For more than a year, Pakistani generals and ministers have assiduously courted their traditional rivals in Afghanistan, particularly from non-Pashtun ethnic groups, as part of a strategy that, they say, favors an inclusive democratic settlement after 2014 -- even one that does not include the Taliban's full return to power.
But Pakistan's biggest public gesture so far -- the release of 26 Taliban prisoners from Pakistani jails, intended as a trust-building measure to help the peace process -- has been shadowed by the old mistrust and accusations of double-crossing.
The Pakistanis refused Afghan demands to release the prisoners into Afghan custody, arguing it would scare the Taliban away. "The moment we hand them over, it would be the end of the process," said a senior Pakistani official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Instead, the Taliban prisoners were allowed to roam free, prompting fears from some Afghan and some American officials that they would simply return to the fight -- at least two already have, according to one Western official. At Chequers, the Pakistanis agreed to give the Afghans one-week notice of all future prisoner releases.
"Pakistan is serious about facilitating the peace process," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and political commentator, citing growing fears that chaos in Afghanistan after 2014 would further destabilize his country.
But Mr. Masood added that the military was also hedging its bets by maintaining some Taliban links. "They want to retain a certain level of leverage in talks," he said. "That's the crucial nuance."
Hopes for Pakistani cooperation dimmed further on Friday when Pakistan's most senior cleric pulled out of a meeting planned for March with Afghan clerics in Kabul, after disagreements over the role of the Taliban. But Afghan clerics appeared to believe that the meeting would go forward, illustrating the tentative and equivocal nature of the peace effort. "We want them to invite the Afghan Taliban to the talks. Without them, peace is not possible in Afghanistan," said Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council.
Afghan senior clerics said they remained hopeful that the talks would be held and that a majority of Pakistani clerics would attend.
The most immediate obstacle to talks is an apparent standoff between Mr. Karzai and the Taliban. The insurgents refuse to deal with Mr. Karzai, whom they have branded as an American "puppet." The president, in turn, recently reiterated his demand that the Taliban must recognize the legitimacy of his government and speak to the High Peace Council, which he has appointed to negotiate with the insurgency and which has representatives from many Afghan factions.
Mr. Karzai, forever fearful of being sidelined by a Western-dominated talks process, has effectively banned the kind of informal discussions with Taliban leaders that have raised hopes over the past few months, including Afghan-centric conferences in France and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and, earlier, in Germany and Japan -- even though those talks appeared helpful in easing tensions between longtime enemies.
Pressure from Mr. Karzai forced the United Nations to abandon a planned "Track Two" meeting, an unofficial diplomacy session involving Taliban representatives and Afghan political leaders, due to take place in Turkmenistan this month, diplomats in Kabul and Islamabad said.
Within the Taliban, a fierce debate is under way between commanders who support talks and those who have never given up on seeking military victory, instead biding time until the Americans are mostly gone, Taliban watchers say. The group's leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, widely presumed to be sequestered at his hide-out inside Pakistan, has been silent on the subject. Even if he were to support a deal, it is unclear whether his movement is sufficiently united to stick to it.
The Americans have quietly pledged not to move forward without the Afghan government's benediction, so previous efforts to build confidence with the Taliban by releasing some of their prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp are on hold, although the Americans retain the right to consider a prisoner release for strategic reasons of their own. An American soldier is being held by the Taliban, and there has been talk of a prisoner exchange to free him.
In Afghanistan, the fighting has continued in some places through the winter, and the start of the main spring fighting season is just weeks away.
"We are stuck here, trying to work out how to take it forward," said a senior Western official in Kabul, discussing the talks process. But even Western diplomats hold different views on how best to advance, depending on whether they are based in Kabul or Islamabad, reflecting the different outlooks in two capitals that are barely an hour apart by airplane.
As the snows begin to melt in the high passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, senior Afghan officials say they will be watching the Taliban's moves closely to see if attacks this year slow down, remain the same or accelerate. In the absence of more concrete progress, that means that the pace of peace will, at least for now, most likely be determined by the forces of the war.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.