Look at Kabul in 1996 and the same city 15 years later. The US-led war in Afghanistan may have been a catalogue of strategic errors, but there is little doubt that the population centres are better off. At least, that is for the moment.
Take, for example, the public bloodbaths meted out by the Taliban on Kabul football pitches. Or the obscurantist frenzy as books were burnt, kite-flying banned and despotic control imposed on every detail of daily life. And women were barred from public life altogether. We have to remember how far Afghanistan can fall if elements of the Taliban return.
We have to remember, because some form of the Taliban surely will. The United States and its allies are learning the lessons of the Soviets and the British before them: a foreign force cannot impose lasting order on Afghanistan. And as Afghans increasingly take back control of their country, the Taliban will be part of the future.
The United States has long taken a more realpolitik approach than its public statements would suggest. Unconfirmed reports have indicated low-level talks facilitated through Pakistan for some time. A Taliban diplomatic office in Qatar is planned before the end of the year, apparently with the blessing of Washington according to a report in TheTimes of London. Who will do the talking, and what about, is not entirely clear.
The group led by Mullah Omar, which took power Kabul in 1996 and now takes orders from the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, is allied with warlords, tribal factions and weekend warriors united mostly by resistance to the foreign occupation. Finding a single leader will be a challenge; if that leader is Mullah Omar, finding common ground will be even harder.
Attacks like those against western targets in Kabul yesterday is the backdrop for diplomacy. In the vacuum of a weak central government and wavering international support, elements of the Taliban are taking control of isolated villages without a fight. In some cases, they have displayed their old tendencies by banning girls' schools.
In the long run, such backwards thinking is self-defeating. What offers more immediate hope is that many former members of the Taliban are now politicians in Kabul. The question is how to accept Afghan Taliban back into politics without returning to the bad old days of despotic control. Negotiations with this new Taliban office in Qatar will begin to tell us if - and how - that will be possible.