I’ve been running around for the past two days and haven’t had time to dissect this important New York Times piece about the Afghan and Pakistani governments nearing the contours of a peace deal for the Afghanistan war. The basic contours of the apparently-emerging deal are this: President Karzai agrees to a power-sharing deal of some sort with the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani network; the Pakistani military and intelligence services, who to some nebulous degree fund both intermingled organizations, produce the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani people for the deal; the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani agree to break with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

Every actor in this scenario gets something: Pakistan gets its strategic depth in Afghanistan through the Haqqanis, who will continue to attack Indian influence in Afghanistan; the Taliban and the Haqqanis get power; Karzai gets to end the war on something resembling his terms. This would qualify as an exogenous event that would compel the Taliban to come to terms under Antonio Giustozzi’s framework for understanding Taliban interests in negotiation.

And the absence of the U.S. in this scenario is very striking.

Though encouraged by Washington, the thaw heightens the risk that the United States will find itself cut out of what amounts to a separate peace between the Afghans and Pakistanis, and one that does not necessarily guarantee Washington’s prime objective in the war: denying Al Qaeda a haven.

Consider me skeptical that the U.S. will in fact be left outside of the deal. Any deal to bring the war to a conclusion has to involve the final dispensation of 150,000 NATO forces. The U.S. and Afghanistan are going to conclude a strategic framework deal to entrench a future long-term diplomatic, economic and security-assistance relationship. The U.S. and Pakistan have a rocky relationship, but there are just too many mutual equities — military sales, intelligence cooperation, the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package — for the U.S. to be cut out. Finally, the fact that this even appears in the New York Times resembles a diplomatic trial balloon to which the Obama administration will respond.

And one aspect of that response is probably going to be a test of whether the Pakistanis can indeed guarantee the break-up of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis from al-Qaeda. We’ve read a lot of accounts of how these organizations entrenched their ties over the last few years through marriages and other formal-seeming arrangements. But they also have distinct agendas, more local than al-Qaeda. Who knows if separation can work, but the U.S. will probably indicate to the Pakistanis that they’re on the hook if a peace deal amounts to strategic depth in Afghanistan for al-Qaeda. At the very least, that’s how a peace deal doesn’t have to contradict U.S. interests in Afghanistan, contra the Times piece. But, at the risk of understatement, it’s a gamble.

One reason for encouragement viz. the Pakistanis. Note how the presumption of one of the Pakistani analysts quoted in the piece is that the Pakistanis really are preparing to move into the North Waziristan safe haven of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. “Many believe that Haqqanis’ willingness to cut its links with Al Qaeda is a tactical move which is aimed at thwarting the impending military action by the Pakistani Army in North Waziristan,” Islamabad University’s Rifaat Hussain tells the paper. Put aside the speculation about Haqqani-crew motivations. If the Pakistanis move into North Waziristan, it sends a message about their unwillingness to tolerate the Pakistani Taliban and its al-Qaeda ally/sponsor/facilitator, as does their cooperation with the CIA’s drone strikes on same. Their money and support for the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqanis provide them with reasonable options and incentives for policing any divorce from al-Qaeda. To be clear, I have no idea if this can work, but these are a few reasons for believing it’s not doomed from the outset. They’re also a set of obligations for the Obama administration and its successors for holding the Pakistanis accountable for guaranteeing this deal.

Finally, note that if any such deal emerges, it will have an indirect relationship to the strategy behind the Afghanistan war. I suppose you can zoom up to 30,000 feet and say that the Obama administration’s strategy is to intensify the fight in order to compel the Taliban to negotiate. (Of course, that’s a generic approach to most wars.) But here there’s a Big Exogenous Event that would compel the end of the war — Pakistani diplomatic intervention — rather than any battlefield circumstance, and it seems that absent that event the Taliban are disinterested in negotiating. And like I said in an earlier post, that’s a big problem for U.S. strategy, since it amounts to an unclarity about how the prosecution of the war relates to an outcome that secures U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan while placing the security of those interests in the hands of other actors. At the same time, what better strategy for securing those interests is on offer? This is a loooooong twilight war.

I’m tempted to write a post about whether the evident Afghan and Pakistani misunderstanding of what July 2011 means — the article indicates they really do think that July 2011 will be a bug-out, and that ain’t what Petraeus and Obama indicate — amounts to a blessing from the perspective of ending the war (the forcing mechanism forces more than we thought?) but I fear it’s too premature even for blogger speculation. How wars end matters a tremendous amount.

Update, 7:10 p.m.: Via new boss Noah Shachtman, CIA Director Leon Panetta tells ABC’s Jake Tapper that “we really have not seen any firm intelligence that there’s a real interest among the Taliban, the militant allies of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda itself, the Haqqanis, TTP, other militant groups. We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation.”