The talk about talks to end the war in Afghanistan is escalating, but are critics of the war jeopardizing the prospect for negotiations when they call for a pullback on the very military operations that are ostensibly needed to force the insurgents to the table?

Some months back, in a not for attribution briefing on Afghanistan, a Canadian military official observed that the Taliban are skilled at luring foreign forces into tactical military victories that actually become strategic victories for the Taliban. A new report from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the situation in Afghanistan essentially confirms that admission - with significant implications for possible efforts to negotiate a ceasefire.

The secretary-general reports that the "multiple military successes" of the international security assistance force (ISAF) and the Afghan national army in the most dangerous and insecure parts of Afghanistan continue to be accompanied by declining security and declining support for the government of Hamid Karzai. Despite a significantly expanded ISAF, he says "access to rural areas of south and southeastern Afghanistan for official and civil society actors has continued to decline."

It used to be called winning the battle while losing the war.

Tactical military successes can lead to strategic setbacks for a variety of reasons, and in Afghanistan two important factors are the large numbers of civilian deaths that accompany some of the battlefield victories and the fact that those battles are won on behalf of a government that many find corrupt and hostile to their collective interests. The UN mission in Afghanistan recorded over 1,000 civilian deaths from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 at the hands of both pro and anti-government forces, and independent monitoring indicates that so far this year the majority of these are attributable to pro-government forces. In addition, the secretary-general says there exists in the Karzai government "a culture of patronage and direct involvement in illegal activities, including the drug trade, especially within the police force."

To achieve strategic success -- that is, a stable security environment and a government that earns the confidence of most Afghans --Moon says the counter-insurgency effort will have to include "political outreach to disaffected groups." In other words, the disaffected community now confronted on the battlefield needs to be engaged through a serious negotiation/reconciliation process, hence Karzai's recently renewed call for negotiations.

But the growing momentum behind such calls is also generating cautionary voices, on two counts in particular. First, say some experts, even though negotiation is almost always appropriate in principle, such talks need to be pursued in situations in which the belligerents have real incentives to consider accommodation and compromise -- in other words, the conflict must be ripe. Second, one incentive for belligerents to come to the table is provided by military pressure -- in other words, a call for negotiations is, therefore, said to be incompatible with parallel calls for military withdrawal and thus an easing of military pressure.

Ripeness for negotiation generally flows from military stalemate -- a situation in which neither side is moving toward victory and both sides are suffering. There is a reason experts call this a "hurting stalemate."

In Afghanistan, the government and its international backers have long said that this war cannot be won on the battlefield, but because the insurgency is still on the rise and is still gaining strength, some analysts argue that Afghanistan has not yet reached that hurting stalemate. Given their apparently growing strength, the insurgents are unlikely to regard themselves as on the run and under pressure to seek a negotiated compromise.

In fact, however, even if the insurgents consider their fortunes to be rising in the south, that does not lift them out of an overall stalemate. The Taliban cannot avoid the hard reality that their base is confined to the south and that they cannot credibly regard themselves on the ascendancy in the country as a whole. They have to understand that they face a long struggle and, even if successful in the south, they cannot expect to push beyond the Pashtun-dominated south and southeast and thus have to recognize that a larger role for the Pashtuns/Taliban in the country as a whole will only be achievable through negotiations.

The second point, the argument that negotiations should not be accompanied by an easing of military pressure, is relevant only if the tactical military victories of the government and its foreign backers actually produce strategic setbacks for the insurgents.

But if ISAF's military victories succeed mainly in building up resentment against the government and its international backers, it is doubtful that continuing military action will work toward more effective negotiations. Current military pressure works against the negotiating interests of ISAF and the government of Afghanistan if that military pressure generates more alienation than trust. Rather than ripening the conflict, it may just be producing more odorous compost.

In other words, instead of trying to kill more insurgents, and a lot of civilians in the process, the focus needs to be on the delivery of genuine security and consolidating gains through reconstruction and improved government services in those areas already held by the government, and then, from that base, to engage populations and combatants in insurgent-held areas in pursuit of a negotiated consensus in support of a new Afghan political alignment.

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