The recent victory by the Taliban, a traditional orthodox Islamic group, can put Afghanistan on a path toward peace or signal continuing war and even its end as a single entity. Afghan factions and adjacent states will have the greatest influence on the direction the country will take, but America can and should play a role in bringing peace to this shattered land.

In the 1980s the U.S.-backed Afghan mujaheddin success against the Soviets exceeded American's highest expectations. As a participant in U.S. government deliberation at the time, I know that for much of the period we believed that, at best, the mujaheddin would delay the Soviet victory. The mujaheddin, however, not only forced the Soviets to withdraw but also played a role in the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

Sadly, the Afghans did not benefit from the Soviet withdrawal. Rather than cooperating, mujaheddin leaders turned to brutal internecine conflict. They destroyed Kabul, divided the country into petty fiefdoms and strengthened communal hatreds. The expectation that the Taliban would establish order -- despite its zealous and intolerant application of Islamic law -- has been an important reason for its success.

Although the Taliban is now the preeminent power in Afghanistan, its chance of bringing peace is uncertain and will largely depend on two issues. The first is whether Taliban continues the war against Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam, who controls northern Afghanistan. In case of a protracted war, Russia, Uzbekistan and Iran are likely to support Dostam. Dostam's Uzbeks and the other smaller Afghan ethnic groups might even form an independent state, a development that could increase centrifugal tendencies in neighboring multiethnic states.

The second is whether Taliban persists in imposing a medieval agenda on the country, which will lead to increased opposition from its current base of support, the Pashtuns, who welcomed the Taliban as a cure for years of brutal anarchy. But once order is established, concerns such as good government, economic reconstruction and education will rise to the fore. Afghan technocrats living in the West who can help the country are unlikely to return, and foreign assistance and investment that Afghanistan badly needs may not materialize.

America has not helped Afghans and our friends in the region make the right decisions. After the fall of the Soviet Union we stopped paying attention. This was a bad decision. Instability and war in Afghanistan provided fertile ground for terrorist groups to train and hide. Afghanistan became a greater source of drugs. The war has been a source of regional instability and an obstacle to building pipelines to bring Central Asian oil and gas to Pakistan and the world markets. Perhaps most important, given the sacrifices made by the Afghans in the Cold War's final struggle, we had a moral obligation to assist them in achieving peace. We did not.

It is time for the United States to reengage. Recent developments in Afghanistan suggest that the United States can help bring a settlement to the Afghan conflict, but it will take leadership and determination to do so. Based on recent conversations with Afghans, including the various Taliban factions, and Pakistanis, I am confident that they would welcome an American reengagement. The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran -- it is closer to the Saudi model. The group upholds a mix of traditional Pashtun values and an orthodox interpretation of Islam. The departure of the Osama bin Laden, the Saudi financier of various anti-U.S. terrorist groups, from Afghanistan indicates some common interest between the United States and the Taliban.

The American objective should be to promote an end to further military offensives by the Taliban -- especially against Dostam -- and the establishment of a broad-based national government. We should encourage the Taliban to begin negotiating with other major Afghan groups, including Dostam and the former king. The king could become a symbol of national unity because of the support he enjoys across ethnic lines.

Second, we should, in turn, be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic reconstruction. We should use as a positive incentive the benefits that will accrue to Afghanistan from the construction of oil and gas pipelines across its territory. These projects will only go forward if Afghanistan has a single authoritative government.

Third, the United States should encourage others states with interests in Afghanistan, including our regional friends such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to work together for the same objectives. Our help might persuade these states to resolve their own internal disputes on how to proceed in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is at another historic crossroads. America alone cannot solve all of Afghanistan's problems, but U.S. diplomatic leadership can play a crucial role in bringing peace to this distressed land. Our interests require that we try, and we have a moral obligation to do so. The writer, a senior strategist at Rand Corp., served in the State and Defense departments in the Reagan and Bush administrations.