LONDON Unthinkable a year ago and still officially beyond the pale, the idea of a political role for Taliban leaders in Afghanistan is creeping onto the agenda as war-weary governments seek to bring an end to an unpopular war.
Some say this could open the door for negotiations if the Taliban think they can secure a better settlement through talks than by waiting for U.S.-led troops to leave and then fighting their way to power through a renewed civil war.
"The Taliban know they can't take over the country. They would be presiding over a country with persistent and perennial poverty and civil war. So they would like to negotiate," said one diplomat involved in discussions about Afghanistan.
The United States and its allies have so far spoken only of reconciliation with those Taliban who renounce violence, sever ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution.
Washington is also sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in a display of strength meant to secure better terms in any eventual peace deal, and trying to peel off Taliban foot soldiers through a programme of "reintegration".
It is seen as unlikely to want to negotiate as long as it believes it can still make gains on the battlefield.
"In my view the Taliban have to be convinced they cannot win before meaningful negotiations can take place," Republican Senator John McCain told reporters this weekend.
But ultimately neither side can win by military means alone, prompting many to look ahead to the day when Washington has to engage with leaders of the insurgency.
"I would trust, frankly, the instincts and the impulses of our administration to at least look at a time when that might be fortuitous," said McCain.
Many analysts say talks would need to involve Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar -- condemned in the West for his refusal to hand over al Qaeda leaders after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"As long as the leaders are not included in the talks, you cannot expect much from a meaningful peace," said Wadeer Safi, a political science professor at Kabul university.
And the price for a settlement could be high as far as the west is concerned -- for example the rehabilitation of Mullah Omar as supreme leader of Afghanistan -- even if not directly running the government.
The Taliban for their part are expected to come under pressure from Pakistan to negotiate to try to end a war which has increasingly spilled over from Afghanistan.
"The regional political situation seems to be changing and I believe now the Pakistan authorities have reached the conclusion to make the Taliban join in the talks," said Afghan analyst Khalil Roman.
POLITICALLY DIFFICULT ON BOTH SIDES
Washington says many Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar are based in Pakistan. And while Pakistan has far less leverage over the Taliban than it had when it nurtured them in the 1990s, it could still make life hard for them if they refused to talk.
Rather like the secret talks between then U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese which tried, and ultimately failed, to secure an honourable exit from Vietnam, any negotiations would be long and easily derailed.
They would also be fraught with risk for both the United States and the Taliban. Any hint of compromise could unleash a public backlash in the United States, as well as alienate the Taliban's own fighters and supporters.
"It is politically very difficult for both Mullah Omar and the American government," said Kamran Bokhari, at STRATFOR global intelligence group.
Whatever happens, public statements on both sides are expected to stick to existing positions. The Taliban say all foreign troops must leave before they negotiate; Washington says they must sever ties with al Qaeda and renounce violence.
But the U.S. announcement it will start drawing down troops in 2011 has already gone some way to meeting a key Taliban demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
For its part, the Taliban has repeated in a statement that it would not allow Afghan territory to be used to harm any other country, a reference to the demand it sever ties with al Qaeda.
Some argue the Taliban could look initially for a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign forces, along with measures like the release of prisoners and the removal of names of Taliban members from a U.N. terrorism blacklist as a starting point.
"The Taliban understand they are not going to roll into Kabul when the Americans leave," said Bokhari. "Eventually he (Mullah Omar) needs negotiations."
But even if both sides were willing to negotiate, a major problem would be in finding the right interlocutors.
Washington and its allies want any process of reconciliation to be Afghan-led, and President Hamid Karzai promised a peace council, or jirga, to try to forge an Afghan consensus on the issue. But Taliban leaders are unwilling to deal with Karzai, whose government they see as weak and corrupt.
In a statement on their website the Taliban rejected Karzai's attempt to reach out to them but said they were open to talks to achieve their goal of an Islamic state.
They distrust Pakistan after it turned against them after Sept. 11, while its determination to check Indian influence in Afghanistan means it cannot act as a neutral mediator.
An attempt to get Saudi Arabia to mediate may be foundering. Analysts say Riyadh resents being asked to help without its own interests being taken into account. Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is concerned about Indian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan.
A former Taliban official said the Taliban wanted to talk directly to the Americans, whom they see as their main adversary rather than the Karzai government.
U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said on Sunday there had been no direct, secret contacts with the Taliban, but said Washington recognised the importance of reconciliation.
"But it must go hand in hand with security success. It is not an alternative to the military campaign. It requires military success to make progress," he told reporters in Munich.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; Alistair Lyon in Beirut; and Mark Trevelyan in Munich; editing by Ralph Boulton)