Afghan President Karzai is starting to become war-weary--as is his populace. His re-election is coming up, and he's starting to become emboldened about his sovereignty thanks in large part due to the negotiations between the US and Iraq in Baghdad. Karzai has asked for a timeline for foreign troop withdrawal--but interestingly, he asked the UN Security Council Delegation, not NATO.
Karzai's frustration is understandable. NATO Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations are often heavy-handed and humiliating for Afghan citizens, most of whom are much more pro-government than many of the folks in Iraq. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), much of southern Afghanistan remains in control of the Taliban. As the Army COIN manual states, the more force that is used in COIN operations, the less effective the force is.
Because the US has very limited operational ability in Pakistan, and Pakistan has been impressively inept at squeezing the Taliban itself, much of NATO (which has no operational capability in Pakistan at all) concentrates its efforts on rooting the Taliban from Afghan villages. The consequences of this, at minimum, are war-weariness. Worse consequences include insurgency formation.
Such a declaration by Karzai is likely quite scary to a US that believes its reputation can't afford a recapturing of Afghanistan by the Taliban. And surely, Karzai doesn't want to timeline his own government into overthrow and his own family into the gallows. It's not what he's looking for--Karzai is a smart, shrewd politician, and his idea has some tricky potential.
So, why a timeline? Looking like a Western colonial tributary is a terrible way to gain legitimacy for your state among the average Mohammed. Remember, Afghanistan is a state of Muslims, has almost no economy to speak of, and very little ability to project power throughout its mountainous terrain. It needs a sovereign legitimacy in the eyes of its people to counter the Taliban--luckily, the Taliban's previous brutal regime alienated such a large proportion of the population that they will not have unanimous support.
But a Taliban opposition will always exist. And yes, they are rather extremist Muslims, but they are not themselves al-Qaeda. They allied with al-Qaeda to keep control. Karzai has a plan to drive a wedge between them. Karzai will make a political deal with members of the Taliban that are willing to openly reject al-Qaeda and accept the Afghani Constitution. For many Taliban, these aren't huge concessions to give in exchange for some military relief--it will be easier to sleep at night knowing that American missiles are less likely to whack them in the middle of the night.
Getting the Taliban to buy into the government has the potential to be akin to the Sunni Awakening. The Sunnis that the US was dealing with in Anbar province were allied with al-Qaeda, extremist in nature, and quite happy to kill civilians. To think that the Taliban cannot be dealt with for these reasons is overly simplistic and idealistic. Smart negotiations can not only keep many Afghani Taliban from making life worse, but they may (given enough incentive) help to hunt down al-Qaeda and cut off cross-border support from Pakistan. Afghanistan is the kind of place where these local militias are a natural steady state, and the government is unlikely to do well by trying to apply thumbscrews to disarm them. Certainly, it is better to ally with them; if the economy can grow, regional divisions will fade in the long-term.
Can a state live with a large extremist Islamic minority? Certainly--even if it's not easy. Saudi Arabia has is Wahabbis, Egypt has its Muslim Brotherhood, Lebanon has all sorts of extreme minorities, as does Iraq, and Jordan has lots of Palestinian refugees to deal with--there is some variation in their success, certainly, but they can hold it together with this model if they negotiate well. It's hard to beat extremism out of a population with a hammer.
On the other hand, the war in Afghanistan is not being won, and the Afghanis are taking quite the brunt for it--as are NATO soldiers and taxpayer dollars. But!
NATO should not encourage reconciliation and peace talks only after it withdraws. NATO troops should act as peace enforcers, trainers, and facilitators to the deal. The US should help forge the Afghani government demands and goals, including Afghani army oversight of any local militia operations.
Like in Iraq, the first thing that needs to happen is a creation of serious security--which at this point probably cannot be done without a peace and reconciliation agreement with parts of the Taliban. Like the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, this will have a payoff of not only reducing violence from these groups, but turning guns against the serious dead-enders.
Once security has been established, long-term political deals need to be made. This is a highly complex process that should be able to bring in many Taliban in the south of Afghanistan--for the right price. Afghanistan will have to be tough and keep power-sharing from overwhelming the Afghani democracy, but minority protections and limited autonomy are common provisions in civil war termination.
If the political deal holds, then economic development and administrative distribution will be the priority of Kabul--but these will be much easier if it's not fighting a war. With a growing economy, working healthcare and garbage collection, more electricity, better roads, and (importantly) fewer doors getting bashed in by foreign infidels, regime security is likely to get a lot better in the long-term.
NATO should be open-minded enough to Karzai's idea to try and support initial talks with the Taliban--testing the water to see what their demands are can't hurt. The US and Afghanistan alike have been taking a beating over the past 7 years, and frankly, things are getting worse. Luckily, Gen. Petraeus is now head of CENTCOM, and his experiences in Iraq should provide him with great wisdom into how to best design the proper carrots and sticks for Afghanistan's Anbar-like southern rural extremists. Hopefully the US will look for a way to deal with Afghanistan that is a bit more effective than continuing to beat its head against a brick wall.