Editorial: Taliban to sit at bargain table
It may not be much, but it may be progress of sorts that the representative who announced that the Taliban had agreed to talks in Qatar towards ending the war in Afghanistan stepped before the massed cameras of the world's television to do so.
Because, along with oppression of women, obliterating all traces of non-Islamic religion and forbidding music when they ran the country, the Taliban also outlawed television. In fact, in coming to the negotiating table the Taliban have made other concessions which seem to indicate a seriousness of purpose and some aim beyond just buying time before another killing season starts.
It has taken some time to get to this point. Talks in Qatar have been in the air for several years. They almost got under way in 2011 but fell apart because of conditions all sides were insisting upon.
They have got off the ground this time after intense diplomatic work not just by Qatar, which has developed a well-earned reputation as a diplomatic honest broker in the region, but also by Pakistan, Germany, Norway and Britain. Both the United States and the Taliban have made concessions. The US is no longer insisting on the Taliban formally renouncing their terrorist ally al Qaeda, settling instead for a statement opposing the use of Afghan soil for foreign attacks and making the formal renunciation a "negotiating aim". The Taliban, for their part, have committed themselves to "a political and peaceful solution" to the war.
Not that anything is likely to be straightforward from here on. The Qatar announcement came on the day on which Nato formally handed over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan security forces. It also came on the day when a mortar attack killed four US service people at Bagram airforce base and just after one of the worst bombings in Kabul in recent months killed three people. And it coincides with a rise in insurgent attacks through the countryside. That fighting is a sign that not all the factions the Taliban is composed of will necessarily go along with the talks.
Even at this stage, they are fraught with difficulty. Although President Hamid Karzai refers to them as "brother Taliban" and has sought to have the talks in Kabul, the Taliban refer to him as a corrupt puppet of the US and have insisted on Qatar as the venue. In time, though, a return to Afghanistan is inevitable.
Many see dealing with the Taliban - a brutal, backward, mediaeval theocracy when they were in power - as a betrayal of what the war has been fought for. But that is to forget that the war was begun to oust the Taliban as the protector of al Qaeda. If the Taliban have renounced that alliance, it is no betrayal to seek to find some way for them to live peaceably within a rebuilt Afghanistan.
The Taliban came to power in the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal. The Afghan government now has a functioning security force, capable of defending the country. There is some hope that the Taliban's agreement to talks shows a realisation that while they could continue fighting, they cannot win.