Injured Doctors Without Borders staff are seen after explosions at their hospital in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Saturday. (Médecins Sans Frontières via Associated Press)

Last weekend’s deadly attack on an international hospital in Afghanistan was a reminder of the terrible war that grinds on there, with Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire.

Doctors Without Borders, a globally respected group, has charged that the deaths of 22 patients and staff members at its hospital in Kunduz was a “war crime.” The United States has promised to investigate what Gen. John Campbell, the NATO commander in Kabul, says was a mistake.

The hospital bombing comes as the United States is quietly exploring some diplomatic options that could reduce the violence in Afghanistan — and perhaps even curb the danger of a nuclear Pakistan next door. As with most diplomacy in South Asia, these prospects are “iffy,” at best. But they open a window on what’s happening in a part of the world that, except for disasters such as the Kunduz incident, gets little attention these days.

The United States recognized more than four years ago that the best way out of the Afghanistan conflict would be a diplomatic settlement that involved the Taliban and its sometime sponsors in Pakistan. State Department officials have been conducting secret peace talks, on and off, since 2011. That effort hasn’t borne fruit yet, as the Taliban’s recent offensive in Kunduz shows.

But the pace of negotiations has quickened this year, thanks to an unlikely U.S. diplomatic partnership with China. A senior administration official said Monday that “we’re hopeful that there will be a willingness on the part of the Taliban to resume negotiations,” despite the intense fighting in Kunduz and elsewhere. Beijing’s involvement is a “new dynamic” and shows an instance where “U.S. interests overlap with those of China.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest reacts to a U.S. general's testimony that a deadly U.S. air strike on a hospital in Afghanistan was a mistake. (Reuters)

The first round of talks took place in late May in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China. The United States and Pakistan were observers to discussions there between Afghan government and Taliban representatives. A second round took place in early July at Murree, a Pakistani resort town near Islamabad. According to a New York Times account, “the two sides agreed to seek a peaceful end to the conflict by attending regular meetings.”

A third round was scheduled for early August in Murree. But it was torpedoed by the leak from Afghanistan that Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s supposed leader, had actually been dead for two years. After a brief interlude, Akhtar Mohammed Mansour became leader of the Taliban. U.S. officials believe he launched the recent offensive in Afghanistan to consolidate his control of the group, and they’re wary of resuming the talks until the violence ebbs.

The White House is also exploring what could be a diplomatic blockbuster: possible new limits and controls on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Such an accord might eventually open a path toward a Pakistani version of the civil nuclear deal that was launched with India in 2005.

The nuclear dialogue is especially important because it would begin to address what U.S. officials for two decades have viewed as one of the world’s most dangerous security problems. A source familiar with the talks said Pakistan has been asked to consider what are described as “brackets.” Pakistan would agree to restrict its nuclear program to weapons and delivery systems that are appropriate to its actual defense needs against India’s nuclear threat. Pakistan might agree not to deploy missiles capable of reaching beyond a certain range, for example.

In return for such an agreement, the source said, the United States might support an eventual waiver for Pakistan by the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, of which the United States is a member. At U.S. urging, that group agreed to exempt India from rules that banned nuclear trade with countries that evaded the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This so-called “civil nuclear agreement” allowed India partial entry into the club of nuclear powers, in exchange for its willingness to apply International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to its civilian program.

Pakistan prizes its nuclear program, so negotiations would be slow and difficult, and it’s not clear that Islamabad would be willing to accept the limitations that would be required. But the issue is being discussed quietly in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington Oct. 22. Any progress would break a stalemate that has existed since the United States detected Pakistan’s nuclear program in the mid-1980s, and especially after Pakistan exploded its first weapon in 1998.

The United States may have forgotten Afghanistan and Pakistan, but those volatile countries haven’t forgotten about the United States. The dangers are as real as ever, and so is the need for aggressive diplomacy to reduce the threat.

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