Beset by political and economic pressures, the Obama administration began this year to seriously explore a negotiated end to the 10-year-old Afghanistan war. So far, a few rounds of direct talks with Taliban representatives have yielded nothing promising, and hostilities on the ground have escalated.

But the idea of peace talks has gained traction, and American experts and think-tanks are weighing in on how to manage them.

The latest contribution is by the Rand Corporation of Washington, DC, and it compares negotiations among all interested parties to the war to herding cats but says there are enough overlapping interests to offer some hope of success.

“For instance, each desires a withdrawal of Western armed forces — a situation especially desired by the publics of all the Western countries,” says the Rand report. “All Afghans want foreigners to stop interfering in their affairs.”

“All foreign governments want assurances that Afghan territory will not be used to their disadvantage. ... Interests diverge less in the area of outcomes than in the area of timing,” the report says. Both the Americans and the Taliban would like foreign forces to leave sooner rather than later, although “most other potential participants, including the Kabul government, are not in such a rush.”

Out of such broad convergence are negotiations begun, although the devil, as always, is in the details.

“There are many obstacles, and the process will probably require years of talking during which the fighting will continue and even intensify,” said James Shinn, who dealt with Afghanistan at the Defense Department and the CIA during the Bush administration, and co-authored the report with James Dobbins, who served as lead U.S. negotiator at the Bonn Accords that established Afghanistan’s current government in 2001.

The report is titled “Afghan Peace Talks. A Primer.” During the course of the past year, Shinn and Dobbins spoke to representatives of every participant in the war, including the Taliban.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests that the United States, as a participant to the war, cannot also be an intermediary among the various parties — including the Kabul government, the Taliban and neighbors including Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia.

Because Washington is “not in the best position to mediate,” it should instead “work to secure the appointment of a figure of international repute with the requisite impartiality, knowledge, contacts and diplomatic skills to take charge of putting together and then orchestrating a multitiered negotiation process, one with the Afghans at its core,” surrounded by “concentric rings of regional and other interested governments.”

Talks could be set up in Germany or Turkey, both of which have expressed an interest, or in a “neutral” location, such as Geneva or Doha, the report says.

The United States, it says, should keep its eye on “the overarching American objective” of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for “transnational terrorists” or an ally of terrorists.

Although the United States has deep interests in the nature of a future Afghan society, including the preservation of rights for women and minorities, it needs to focus most closely on those larger objectives, the report says. It must also be prepared to concede a Taliban presence in the Afghan government.

“Only to the extent that other issues impinge on this objective should American negotiators be drawn into a discussion of Afghanistan’s social or constitutional issues.”

“American policymakers must prepare for two futures,” it says, “one negotiated, one not.” Both must meet the bottom-line objective of preventing a return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan. If negotiations fail, “some level of American military engagement will probably be necessary well beyond the 2014 date by which President Obama has promised to remove all American combat forces.”

“On the other hand,” the report says, “full some not-so distant date is probably a necessary component of any peace deal.”

“In bargaining terms, promising to leave is the American counterpart to the Taliban’s commitment to cut its ties with al-Qaeda. Troubling as Americans may find this symmetry, these potential concessions represent each side’s highest cards and are thus likely to be played only at the culmination of any negotiation process.”

But even as talks in Afghanistan are gathering momentum, the military realities on the ground are altering in favour of the Taliban. The Obama Administration is losing all the initiative it seemed to have regained over the past few months.

The US has sought to repackage the killing of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda-Taliban leaders as a grand strategic success and a prelude to an ordered withdrawal from Afghanistan. The reality is that the US strategy in Af-Pak is failing. Obama is mired in multiple domestic crises and is now increasingly worried about his re-election prospects next year.

The economic situation is turning from bad to worse. He has little interest in Afghanistan. New Delhi should take due note of these developments and try to carve an independent policy response. For far too long, India had put all its eggs in American basket. As it becomes clear that the US is ready to leave and that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is turning to India’s disadvantage, India should start a re-think on its Af-Pak policy.

IT’s time to be assertive about India’s legitimate interests in a post-American Afghanistan.