KABUL // Nine years after the war in Afghanistan began, the Taliban are reported to be holding high-level talks with the government of Hamid Karzai to end their increasingly bloody conflict.
The negotiations would be an important breakthrough for all concerned and represent a genuine - if slim - chance of peace. But even the prospect of such talks raises more questions than it answers. The Taliban are said to be aiming for a comprehensive agreement that would include the participation of some their members in the government and a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
But this is an ideological Islamist movement that has little in common with any of its potential negotiating partners. It is opposed to holding elections and has consistently denounced Mr Karzai as a "puppet" of the United States. Both positions seem to leave minimal breathing room, even if there is some scope for optimism. A deal that stopped al Qa'eda easily basing itself in Afghanistan would doubtless be the top priority for the White House, and that is a bargaining chip the Taliban appear willing to cash in.
Indeed, the group has already suggested that it is prepared to cut those ties. A withdrawal of the 150,000 foreign troops is also an issue that could be relatively simple to solve, with security due to be handed over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 in any case.
There are growing signs that the US and its Nato allies want to leave and it now looks as if they are seeking an exit that will allow them to save face at home and make a clear case that the sacrifices of their soldiers have been worthwhile. But there are much bigger stumbling blocks before an agreement is even close. First, there is the matter of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The United States has ruled out a deal with him, yet he remains central to the Taliban and there are few genuine signs of divisions among the insurgents.
Any settlement that does not include Mullah Omar and other senior rebel figures would probably fail. Indeed, the political scene here is hugely complicated, with its past and present divisions across ethnic, religious and party lines. There are scores that still need to be settled among Afghanistan's powerbrokers and wounds that have failed to heal during more than three decades of conflict.
If members of the Taliban join the current government, they will give up many of their core principles. Even among its harshest critics in Kabul, the former Taliban regime is remembered for being almost entirely free of bribery and extortion at all levels. That can hardly be said of the Karzai administration.
The Taliban would also have to swallow their pride and join forces with bitter enemies whom it traditionally regards as every bit as bad as, if not worse than, the foreign troops. These are the mujaheddin leaders who fought each other in a brutal civil war between 1992 and 1996, before going on to form the Northern Alliance. Many of them are now officials of one kind or another and they continue to be denounced, publicly and privately, by the rebels for the atrocities they committed against civilians.
Even if all these issues are overcome, there is then the matter of what government positions will be given to the Taliban. Major ministries would surely have to be put on the negotiating table. Of course, the Taliban represent only one side of what would have to be a broad, national agreement among Afghans if the conflict is to end. This adds to further, equally vital, questions and doubts. Leaders of the Tajik ethnic group - including the former presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, and the ex-intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh - have been vocal in their opposition to the consequences of a possible political settlement.
And Shiite Hazara leaders have also voiced their concerns, raising the spectre of another civil war if the Taliban did actually agree to join the government without the support of the country's minorities. These are the big issues that must be addressed before a meaningful, lasting peace deal can even start to be considered a realistic possibility. Any agreement that does not solve them risks collapsing.
If they are tackled, the finer details will then need to be examined. These include extremely sensitive issues such as women's rights and religious, cultural and social freedoms - all of which were restricted under the Taliban regime. Significant concessions on them by the US and its allies will cause anger among civil society groups domestically and internationally. A deal is not impossible. According to The Washington Post, which reported yesterday that the talks are taking place: "They are very, very serious about finding a way out."
But all the stars surely have to be aligned for this to bring a definitive end to the Afghan tragedy. If the Post's story is correct, there is some hope. But if it is simply an attempt by US officials to sow discord among the Taliban, it is unlikely to succeed. The insurgents now control a large part of rural Afghanistan and have a presence in most provinces across the country. They will not give up easily.