It was the closest that the parties have come to genuine peace negotiations after nearly a year of talks, officials said. They said the agreement ultimately collapsed after Afghan President Hamid Karzai balked at its terms.
“Right now, things have stopped,” said a senior Obama administration official. “Everybody is taking a deep breath.” Contacts with the Taliban are expected to be reestablished early in the new year.
The negotiations reflect a marked change over the past year in what the administration believes is both acceptable and achievable in Afghanistan, apart from the core objective of eliminating al-Qaeda and the possibility that it could reestablish an Afghan presence.
Disappointment in the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, economic and political pressures at home, and sheer fatigue with the decade-long effort have led to lowered expectations as the United States and its allies head toward the scheduled withdrawal of all foreign troops by the end of 2014.
The need to fashion a comprehensive, realistic exit strategy was also underlined in a newly completed National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, a classified assessment produced by U.S. intelligence agencies. Officials familiar with the document described it as uniformly pessimistic about the future.
“We’re not looking for nirvana,” said a second administration official. “We’re pretty sanguine about Afghan ‘good enough.’ That’s the framework” for current strategy discussions, this official said. “That’s why we’re working so hard on reconciliation.”
U.S. commanders have said that the Taliban’s interest in talks stems from coalition gains on the battlefield. But officials said they believe the insurgents are more or less in the same position as the United States in forecasting that the conflict will reach an inconclusive end. Taliban leaders may believe that political accommodation now will better position them for future struggles after the troop withdrawal, officials said.
Short-term agreements with the insurgents, such as the establishment of cease-fire zones, could influence decisions on when to transfer areas to Afghan control. Those transitions could, in turn, dictate the pace of troop withdrawal, as well as longer-term assessments of what “good enough” means in terms of stability and central government control.