LONDON/KABUL Despite hopes that talks with the Taliban could provide the political underpinning for the U.S. staged withdrawal from Afghanistan, the discussions are still not at the stage where they can be a deciding factor.
With Washington due to announce next month how many troops it believes it can safely pull out of Afghanistan, diplomats say that months of talks between the two sides -- a crucial building block in any eventual political solution -- have yet to develop into serious negotiations.
"Right now they are gauging each other's temperature," said one diplomat who is involved in international discussions about how to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan.
A Western diplomat in Kabul gave a similar account, saying, "There are no serious load-bearing talks going on, a lot of contacts."
President Barack Obama is expected to announce next month how many troops he plans to withdraw from Afghanistan as part of a commitment to begin reducing the U.S. military presence from July and hand over to Afghan security forces by 2014.
Facing budget pressures at home, and calls to explain why the United States should linger in Afghanistan after killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, Obama is nonetheless expected to argue for maintaining a substantial troop presence.
But his officials have increasingly been holding out the prospect of talks with the Taliban as a way of eventually settling a war now into its 10th year.
"Perhaps this winter the possibility of some kind of political talks on reconciliation might be substantive enough to be able to offer some hope of progress," outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this month.
According to official sources from several countries, Washington began face-to-face meetings with representatives of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar toward the turn of the year, and possibly several months before that.
But so little is known about these contacts that they have been open to widely different interpretations. One diplomat, for example, said there was no substance to recent media reports of U.S.-Taliban talks being hosted in Germany.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were ousted for refusing to give up al Qaeda after September 11, 2001, publicly dismiss suggestions they are holding talks, saying that they will not negotiate until foreign troops leave.
But long before bin Laden was killed, they had been signaling a willingness to break with al Qaeda -- a key condition for a political settlement -- by saying they would not allow Afghanistan to be used to attack other countries.
PAKISTAN SEEN MORE ENGAGED
In what may be a sign of progress, Washington is seeking to split a U.N. sanctions list for Taliban and al Qaeda figures into two and to remove some Taliban names from those subject to its travel restrictions and asset freezes, diplomats say.
Pakistan, which says it wants a settlement in Afghanistan to help end instability at home, is also projecting itself as willing to play a constructive role despite accusations from Washington that it backs the Taliban -- allegations it denies.
"I do get a sense they are willing to engage more ... that they do want to be brought into the fold," the western diplomat in Kabul said.
The United States says much of the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan, putting it in a strong position to influence their attitude toward peace talks. The aims of Washington and the Taliban, however, remain far apart.
Washington is currently negotiating with the Afghan government security arrangements after 2014, which one diplomat from the region said could involve the United States retaining semi-permanent military bases there for 15 to 20 years.
While the Taliban say publicly they want all foreign troops out, some diplomats suggest they might settle for a clear timeline for withdrawal by 2014 -- but not for long-term bases.
One diplomat also said the Taliban's ambitions for their future in Afghanistan were still considerably bigger than the role sketched out for them by Western countries in which they would be included as part of a broader political process.
And while bin Laden's death would make it easier in theory for them to break with al Qaeda, the diplomat said there were no signs yet of them shifting their position since the May 2 raid.
Direct talks are no panacea -- Britain held its first direct talks with the Irish Republican Army in 1972 but took nearly 20 years to settle the Northern Ireland conflict.
Analysts and Western diplomats argue moreover that the Taliban cannot be compared to a national liberation movement with whom a peace deal can be struck and the war ended.
Rather, the insurgency is fragmented. Even within the so-called Quetta shura Taliban led by Mullah Omar, no one is sure how far he can deliver younger fighters into a settlement.
Then there are other major insurgent groups including the Haqqani network and the Hizb-e-Islami-Gulbuddin (HiG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar which have not been included in the talks.
Yet the Haqqani network is one of the most active insurgent groups, blamed among other things for involvement in a suicide attack which killed CIA agents in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
The United States has been pushing Pakistan to target the Haqqanis in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and some have blamed its reluctance to do so on perceived support by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
Pakistan says its overstretched military needs to give priority to tackling militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who have been bombing its own people.
It is as yet unclear whether the Haqqanis would ever be brought into talks on a political settlement.
"At the moment the Americans are not yet ready," said the diplomat who is involved discussions about the talks. "They think the Haqqanis are quite thick with al Qaeda."
Any political settlement would have to pull together not only that fragmented and Pashtun-dominated insurgency, but also other groups in Afghanistan like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who regard the Taliban with deep suspicion.
And it would have to be clear that regional powers, including Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia, were ready to support a political settlement rather than backing rival Afghan groups in a way which fueled a growing civil war.
British officials frequently cite the analogy of a double-decker bus in which all the various Afghan parties ride on one deck with the regional powers on the other, steering toward a settlement. As yet, everyone is still at the bus stop.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)