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Can US and Taliban cut a deal in Afghanistan?

Even before Osama bin Laden's killing, the Taliban were softening their image while the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan set the stage for talks. Now the US must decide if it's worth years of further military and diplomatic effort to hammer out an agreement.

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"I didn't let the hatred develop in my body towards even Americans," says Baheer. "I was a politician, and I knew in my future the time would come that again we would be talking to each other. If you have hatred toward someone, then you aren't talking to them from the bottom of your heart."

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While Baheer might be willing to engage in new peace negotiations, it wouldn't simply be a matter of showing up at some conference center for talks. In the complicated world of Afghan politics, even getting to the negotiating table can be tricky.

Some of the top insurgents have spent years in harsh detention or on a UN blacklist. They fear they will be detained if they travel outside their protected territories. It's a reminder of the mistrust that exists on all sides, a mistrust rooted in painful memories – of torture on one side and of fanatics flying airplanes into skyscrapers on the other.

The UN has begun removing some names from its blacklist. But even former Taliban who now sit on Karzai's High Peace Council remain listed. Fixing this issue won't be easy. According to Western officials in Afghanistan, Russia, as a member of the Security Council, must agree to any changes, and Moscow views this as valuable leverage. It's one of the many trump cards being held in the top floors of embassies, the "poppy palaces" of warlords, and the underworld havens of insurgent leaders when it comes to trying to launch peace talks.

"The downside of this whole thing: There are too many people who are trying to reconcile," says Sadiq, the Pakistani ambassador.

A lack of American support?

Since his release, Baheer has represented Hizb-e-Islami in talks with Karzai's government. Yet those negotiations failed last year due to a lack of American support, he claims – something echoed by Karzai administration officials.

On paper, Hekmatyar is demanding withdrawal of foreign forces and changes to the Afghan Constitution. In the interview, Baheer wouldn't get specific on constitutional changes, but said his party has always believed in women's education and suggested flexibility on troop withdrawal, saying it should be "according to logical, acceptable, and practical timetables."

Officially, the Taliban still set withdrawal as a precondition for talks – a nonstarter for the US. As one of Afghanistan's longest-running political parties, though, Hizb-e-Islami has more experience with compromise and the art of politics. "I am trying to talk with [the Taliban] to come up with something practical. This stand is not logical to say 'no' to everything," says Baheer.

Ultimately, he sees a new government being formed with many different players. "The Taliban were rigid and lacking the experience of running a country. But they have learned, and there will be a lot more political players in Afghanistan."

But are the Taliban really ready to talk and, more crucially, enter a political process? Their official statements are not encouraging. They have rejected the High Peace Council formed by Karzai to lead the process, even though the Afghan leader designated the council a nongovernmental organization to overcome the Taliban refusal to meet with the Afghan government.

Parsing Taliban statements

Given the limited access to top Taliban figures, experts have to parse their intents and interests from statements and shards of information – an Afghan version of the old cold-war Kremlinology. One of these experts is Wahid Mujda, himself a former Taliban official.

In an interview last year, Mr. Mujda noted that as far back as March 2009 the statements from the Taliban were moderating. A new political chief for the group sent out a message to the Muslim world asking citizens to not revolt against governments. (This predated the events touched off in Tunisia this spring.) The rationale was that revolts would bring deeper US meddling in the Middle East. The statement intrigued Mujda.

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