This past fortnight there has been an amazing development in international relations that would have seemed impossible six months ago. The US president said dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban 'should be explored'. In response the leader of the Taliban reportedly approved entering into peace negotiations.
During an extended interview with journalists on Airforce One on 6 March, Barack Obama, when asked if America was winning the war in Afghanistan, answered with a resounding 'No'. He went on to say that dialogue and reconciliation could be part of new initiatives in that troubled country.
He referred to successful strategies in Iraq that might be extended to Afghanistan: 'If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us.'
This comes in the context of a major overhaul of US foreign policy by the Obama administration. 'Afpak' (its shortening for Afghanistan-Pakistan) is at the top of its agenda.
Views are far from unanimous. The attitude of the Pentagon can be gauged from the response of its press secretary, Geoff Morell, to news that the Taliban were open to dialogue. He said he did not believe 'anybody in this building would support the notion of reconciling with people with that kind of blood on their hands'.
So who are the people on the other side? The Taliban leader who gave the green light to negotiations is the shadowy Mullah Mohammed Omar. He became battle hardened as part of the mujahideen resistance to Soviet occupation. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, he was made leader, and given the title 'commander of the faithful'.
When Taliban rule was brought to an end by the American-led invasion in 2001, he fled to the border regions of Pakistan. Always a recluse, he has never been seen, let alone interviewed by Western journalists. Perhaps Mullah Omar is not the person to be negotiating with. With his history of defiantly harbouring Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, and as leader of the harsh and repressive Taliban regime, it is well to be cautious.
That is the sharp end of debate. However perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from the softer end of town — from inter-religious dialogue.
Over the 30 years or so that this has been going in earnest, there has been a marked shift away from a universalist 'lovey-dovey' approach which argued that underneath we are all the same, and the way to peace and harmony is to uncover and recognise the similarities.
Now the emphasis is on what Dirk Ficca, Director of the Parliament of the World's Religions, calls a 'particularist' approach. This recognises what is particular in each tradition, that there are deep differences between religions and cultures, and aims to build productive dialogue between difference. Further than this, it recognises that binding and creative solutions can only be found by incorporating all the polarities in dialogue.
Philosopher and theologian, Raimon Panikkar, a veteran of inter-religious dialogue, is perhaps the most articulate and passionate proponent of this view.
'We have a tendency to construct for ourselves an increasingly uninhabitable world broken into combat zones between 'us' and 'them',' Panikkar writes. 'It is the cross-cultural challenge of our times that unless the barbarian, the mleccha, goy, infidel, nigger, kaffir, foreigner, and stranger are invited to be my thou, beyond those of my clan, tribe, race, church, or ideology, there is not much hope left for the planet.'
Perhaps this outreach by both sides in the Afghan conflict is the first tentative sign of breaking down the combat zone between 'us' and 'them'. Afghan president Hamid Karzai certainly sees this as the way forward, and has courted Mullah Omar. In November last year, Karzai said, 'If I hear from him that he is willing to come to Afghanistan or to negotiate for peace, I as president will go to any length to provide protection.'
President Karzai has appointed his brother, Qayim, as envoy to the Taliban, and Qayim Karzai is remarkably sanguine about the possibilities opened up over the last week. 'I can tell you President Obama's words have created enormous optimism. There is no other way left but talks. All sides know more fighting is not the way.'
Parliament of the World's Religions
Peter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree on the theology of inter-religious dialogue from the Sydney College of Divinity. In 2007 his book The Quiet Revolution: the Emergence of Interfaith Consciousness was published by ABC Books.