Anja Niedringhaus/AP

How Obama Learned to Deal with the Taliban

The militants' willingness to talk signals weakness—and is the most hopeful sign for the U.S. in Afghanistan in years.

One thing is clear: the United States fumbled the rollout of peace talks with the Taliban, leading to the latest dustup with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president of Afghanistan. But all that flying dust—harsh words, conciliatory phone calls late into the night—has obscured a more important development: The Taliban may well be weakening and worried about their future.

If true, that would amount to a huge achievement for Barack Obama, who inherited a mostly failed Afghanistan policy from George W. Bush. Make no mistake: This has become entirely Obama's war over the last four years. The president deliberated for six months in 2009, then mounted his own personal mini-surge, shifted his generals around with an almost Lincoln-like alacrity, and ultimately assembled a nearly 350,000-strong Afghan national fighting force in near-record time—a force that has just this week taken over the lead in operations across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated to have a force just one-tenth that size.

Now, after many months in which the Taliban leadership were reluctant to say publicly what they were telling Afghan officials privately—that they are getting a little weary of fighting fellow Afghans and wanted to start up peace talks—that appears to be happening, even if the process has been delayed by a new diplomatic tiff between Washington and Kabul.

It could mean the first serious sign that, after the American and NATO withdrawal of most combat troops at the end of 2014, the country could hold together after all, even with a minimal U.S./NATO presence. And that the U.S.-led "counterinsurgency" scheme could see some meager success after all. The Taliban's fitful willingness to talk would appear to bear out claims from senior Afghan officials that I heard during a trip to Afghanistan in May: that the Taliban are "confused" about their goals, beset with worries about whether they can sustain a successful "spring offensive," and second-guessing themselves about the wisdom of fighting Afghan forces directly, as opposed to "foreign occupiers" -- the U.S. and NATO.

The Taliban are clearly still divided, and the Americans perhaps a little too eager to talk, since what were once preconditions for the talks—cutting all ties with al Qaida—have now become "end goals," in the words of State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.  (The Taliban appear to have fudged that promise by promising only, in a statement, that the movement will not "allow others to use Afghan soil to pose a threat to the security of other nations.") Yet even as the tentative deal to open up a Taliban office in Qatar for talks was announced, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram air base that killed four Americans the same day. Asked Wednesday whether that assault would scuttle the talks, Psaki replied: "We didn't expect that they would decry al-Qaida and decry terrorism immediately off the top. This was – this is an end result, or an end goal, I should say. It's a bumpy road. We always knew it would be."

Unfortunately several of the early bumps in the road were placed there, unnecessarily, by Washington, in what must be seen as a somewhat inauspicious beginning for Jim Dobbins, the new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's really not a great start when your boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, is forced to make two phone calls to Karzai to explain why: 1) the Americans allowed the Taliban to lay claim to being the true representatives of the Afghan government by referring to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the country used to be known under Taliban rule, and presenting itself as a government in exile; 2) after months of insisting that both the war and peace talks needed to be "Afghan-led," why Washington would announce bilateral talks between the U.S. and Taliban, cutting Karzai out.

U.S. officials say the Taliban simply lied about how they would describe their the new office in Qatar, and that Washington always intended to bring in Karzai. Even so, Karzai, who is sometimes seen as unstable in Washington, has often played a savvy game of orchestrating diatribes against the U.S. in order to solidify his domestic political base. He promptly called off not only any talks with the Taliban but also suspended negotiations over the all-important post-2014 security partnership with the United States.

Most of this was for show, but again the larger question is how much does the Taliban really want peace, and does this really represent a shift by its top leadership? U.S. officials say yes, though they're not certain. "We do believe that the Taliban Political Commission, as they call themselves -- which is now based in Doha -- are the authorized, fully authorized representatives of the movement, and authorized by Mullah Omar himself," a senior administration official said this week.  "They declare that about themselves, and that's our understanding based on all the reporting." He said the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally, is also represented in Doha.

Karzai will stay on board, despite his fulminations. He knows he has no choice if the Afghan government is to survive after 2014. But the real question is whether the Taliban are truly getting tired of fighting, as the most hopeful U.S. and NATO accounts say, and whether, as Masoom Stanekzai, the chief of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, says, they lack a "political vision" for the future other than to try to become a legitimate, and largely non-violent, political movement. No one knows, but a willingness to talk is usually a sign of weakness, not strength. And that is a good sign. So is the realistic approach being taken by Dobbins, who was the Bush administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan back in the fall of 2001 and knows all the pitfalls, despite these early fumbles. "I think we need to be realistic," said someone familiar with Dobbins' thinking.  "This is a new development, a potentially significant development.  But peace is not at hand."

True, yet something close to Obama's only real goal may be:  keeping Afghanistan from becoming once again a staging ground for al Qaida, as it was before 9/11. And that, however lacking in glory, would still be a victory.