An Afghan Army soldier is seen through the wreckage of a destroyed car after a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 16, 2013. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Amid the scattered but steadily mounting carnage of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, including a suicide bombing Monday that killed a provincial council head, hopes of stirring life into peace talks with the Islamist insurgents seem to be dying here with each new suicide attack, kidnapping and roadside bombing.

Even as this fragile nation of about 30 million holds its breath, fearing catastrophe could follow the presidential election and NATO troop pullout next year, both the Afghan government and its armed opponents seem to think that time is on their side. A once-acute feeling of urgency to end the war seems to have been overtaken by uneasy, tenuous maneuvering in a vast political fog.

“Everything in Afghanistan seems very ambiguous now,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban diplomat and a member of the government-appointed peace council. “There are a hundred questions to be answered, but nothing is clear, and we have no magic formula.”

Failure of initiatives

Just a few months ago, momentum seemed to be building for rapprochement. In December, Afghan officials, political opposition figures and Taliban leaders held private discussions in Paris. Several participants described the meetings as a breakthrough, yet no concrete actions or agreements emerged from them.

A planned Taliban office in Qatar, where the insurgents could meet with Afghan and foreign officials to talk about peace negotiations, did not get off the ground before the summer fighting season began this year. Although President Hamid Karzai, who had balked at the idea, finally reached agreement with Qatar in April, the Taliban — which has insisted that it will talk only with the Americans and not with Karzai — has expressed little recent interest in moving forward.

Talks between the Americans and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, ended early last year, and a tentative deal to exchange prisoners and implement other confidence-building measures fell apart. Those discussions have not resumed, according to Obama administration officials.

The common denominator that played a part in undoing both initiatives, observers said, was the deep hostility and mistrust between Taliban leaders and Karzai. The Taliban does not recognize the Kabul government as legitimate, calling it a Western-installed puppet. The group has demanded a new constitution and says it prefers to negotiate with a wide range of Afghans and foreign interlocutors.

“The Taliban say Karzai is the biggest obstacle to peace,” said Waheed Mojda, a political analyst and former Taliban ministry employee. “They discovered in Paris that they have a lot in common with some of his opponents, and they have the same questions everyone else does about 2014. Once Karzai is gone from power, they want to be in communication with other parties and movements.”

Aides to Karzai, however, said they are convinced that despite the more-moderate tone being adopted by Taliban leaders today, they remain ruthless extremists who want to forcibly turn Afghanistan into a pure Islamic state. Karzai, who shares ethnic and tribal roots with the Taliban, was once fond of calling the group’s members “brothers,” but his comments have taken a harsher, more exasperated tone of late.

“We need a just and enduring peace, not a quick deal with the Taliban,” said Ismael Qasimyar, a longtime Karzai aide and peace council member. “The Taliban talk about girls’ education and political pluralism now, but they think that after the NATO troops withdraw, they can conquer and rule us again. . . . We will never sacrifice a single Afghan’s rights just to get a settlement with the Taliban.”

Mounting concerns

Several other factors have contributed to deepening pessimism about prospects for peace. Most dramatic is a renewed surge in Taliban violence this spring, which has left hundreds of Afghan police officers, soldiers and civilians dead, along with 57 coalition troops, from March to May. The southern-based insurgents have staged small attacks and bombings across hundreds of miles and more than a dozen provinces.

In the latest attack, a suicide bombing killed 14 people Monday, including the provincial council head of Baghlan, a relatively peaceful and secure province in the northeast. The attacker approached the official, a known anti-Taliban figure, as he talked with a group outside his office in the city of Pul-i-Khumri. The Taliban swiftly asserted responsibility for the bombing.

NATO and Afghan officials point out that most attacks are still confined to a few small areas of the country and that the insurgents lack the capacity to confront Afghan and coalition troops, who far outnumber them. But the growing number of attacks on civilians this year has alarmed Afghans and international observers, and many express concern that Afghan troops will not be able to provide security in many regions during the election next year.

Another widely shared concern here is whether Pakistan, a powerful neighbor that many Afghans mistrust, will hinder the peace process and take advantage of a tumultuous transitional year to weaken the Kabul government. Afghan officials say Pakistan wields strong influence over the Taliban and is in no hurry to bring the group to the negotiating table.

Pakistan “does not want a strong Afghan government; it wants a slice of the cake of Afghan power,” Qasimyar said. “Pakistani officials repeatedly say they want peace and stability for Afghanistan, but Pakistan is a nursery and exporter for extremism. Taliban leaders living in Pakistan need to get out of there, so they will be free to think and be independent and engage in peace.”

Beyond any single source of worry, though, analysts and officials here said the broad questions associated with the upcoming transition seem to have overwhelmed the narrower demands and conditions for peace. Who will govern the country? Will the defense forces hold together or disintegrate into ethnic factions? Will the war economy collapse? Will the neighbors interfere? Will any Americans stay beyond 2014, and what will be the function of those troops?

“For everyone, 2014 is the big nightmare,” Mujahid said. “There is a great gap between the people and the government, but I see little chance for a legitimate election that will bring stability. As long as the future is not clear, I think there is nothing we can do for peace.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.