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Is peace really in the air in Afghanistan?

Naweed Haqjoo / EPA

Relatives greet former Taliban militants following their release from Bagram detention center in Kabul, after they reached their home town in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Jan. 2, 2013. Some 16 former Taliban members who were detained during operations in Ghazni by the U.S. and Afghan forces were released as part of a government-backed program called Takhim-e-Solh, or "Strengthening Peace."

News analysis

KABUL, Afghanistan - There’s something wafting in the air in Afghanistan, and for once it’s not the smell of detritus, diesel or cordite.  People – rivals, even enemies -- are talking about peace. Not just talks about talks – those have been going on – and off – for a couple of years now.  But serious, genuine moves toward reconciliation are – for the first time since I can remember – actually squeezing into an otherwise depressing narrative of stalemate and loss.

Take the Pakistani government’s Dec. 31 release from prison of eight former Taliban members, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s right-hand man and former justice minister, Mullah Turabi. This move, Afghan analysts say, is part of a new strategy, formulated in a November meeting between Afghan and Pakistani officials in Islamabad. The release, they say, was more than a goodwill gesture between bitter rivals. The clear hope was that freed former Taliban officials with the stature of Turabi would serve as emissaries, clearing the way for peace talks between Hamid Karzai’s government and the current Taliban leadership – based in Pakistan – and with the Pakistan government’s blessing. 

This was no isolated move. Eighteen other jailed Taliban were released earlier in December, among them men who used to command Taliban units in the field. Not surprisingly, official Afghan reaction has been quick and positive. Ismail Qasimyar, a ranking member of the High Peace Council, Karzai’s appointed group of diplomats seeking reconciliation, said the gesture "shows the Pakistani authorities have opened a new chapter for positive cooperation with Afghanistan." It’s the first time since the war began that I’ve seen Afghanistan and Pakistan treat each other as potential partners, not spoilers.

Pakistan’s military, believed by many to be supporting the Afghan Taliban as a means of leveraging its influence with its chaotic neighbor, is now jumping on the peace bandwagon as well. And it’s not just Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani, the alleged driving force behind the new rapprochement, who is changing his tune.

Buried in the pre-holiday build-up, a semi-secret meeting took place outside Paris between 20 key Afghan players, under the auspices of a French think tank. Afghan government and opposition figures, and, for the first time, insurgent leaders, including the Taliban and its offshoot, Hezb-e-Islami, all sat down together. There were no breakthroughs, or even concessions, but the point was to get all the warring sides to do something they hadn’t done in some 30 years: talk directly to each other. 

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

Officially, the Taliban stuck to its public positions. It called the Afghan constitution illegitimate and refused to negotiate with the "U.S. puppet" Karzai government, but a positive momentum does seem to be building. More "secret" talks are set to follow. The United Nations office in Kabul has invited the Taliban to a conference there. Meanwhile, an official Taliban bureau will soon open in Qatar for parallel talks with the United States.

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Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar appears at an undisclosed location in a video taken on May 5, 2007.

Even the much-feared warlord and former Mujahedeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was labeled a global terrorist by the U.S. and has been on the lam for the past dozen years, is now launching his own peace balloons. In an interview that appeared in Wednesday’s British "Daily Telegraph," the man who, as prime minister in the 1990s, oversaw the brutal flattening of much of Kabul, spells out a 10-point peace plan, calling on all Afghan brothers to unite, asking "all the stakeholders within Afghanistan to join hands for a workable solution for Afghanistan and resolve disputes.’’

Cynics – and there are many – aren’t buying any of it. Their arguments are well-known: They say civil war will break out as soon as the U.S. and its allies go home; that the moderate Taliban may want to put down their AKs and become a political force, but it’s the hard-core who rule, and who believe they’re winning the war; that all the peace feelers are just ways of buying time while the Afghan Taliban ratchets up its attacks on local security forces and the Pakistani Taliban doubles down on its side of the border, most recently killing a group of female NGO and aid workers.

All that rings true. But then I take a deep breath –- and smell that very different smell -– and ask: could this really be the turning point I’ve been writing about for so long?

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London and currently on assignment in Kabul, who’s covered Afghanistan since the 1980s.

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