Perhaps she’s angling for a political campaign in 2012, as farfetched and unlikely as that might be, but Hillary Clinton continues to pretend as if the war in Afghanistan is about women’s rights. Yesterday, Clinton used part of her time at the Kabul conference on the future of Afghanistan to proclaim that a settlement of that country’s war "can’t come at the cost of women and women’s lives," adding: "We are aware of the concerns that many of you have expressed about the reconciliation process and we understand why you would have those concerns."

Well, of course, enlightened Afghans have those concerns, because the integration of the Taliban and its allies into Afghan governance, whatever form it may ultimately take, will not boost women’s rights—which, Clinton might have noticed, aren’t exactly proliferating in much of the region, from Saudi Arabia, where morality police run rampant, to Pakistan, to India, where caste and honor killings of woman occur by the thousands, and in Iran, where women are sometimes stoned and live under the oppression of morality police, too. If Clinton thinks that Americans will support a war in Afghanistan to defend the right of girls to go to school, she’s badly mistaken.

That’s not to say that the United States shouldn’t support women’s rights in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But changing the culture and social mores of backward, benighted Pashtun villages isn’t something imposed from the top. And it’s more urgent than ever that Afghanistan, the Taliban, its allies, and its sponsors in Pakistan strike a deal to end the war, with or without US support. Getting the Taliban to forsake Al Qaeda is the big prize, while getting the Taliban to endorse the goals of the National Organization for Women is less likely. Clinton may or may not know that.

Meanwhile, at the Kabul conference, President Karzai once again defended his scheme to make a deal with the top Taliban leadership, an idea that may be attracting more support (finally) from elements of the US administration. Yesterday, I spoke with one insider who confirmed that Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, is more actively engaged these days in exploring the possibility of an Afghan-Taliban deal brokered by Pakistan. In the end, though such a deal would require artful diplomacy to rope in India, Iran and Russia, a Pakistan-Afghanistan deal is the key to ending the war as the United States starts withdrawing next July.

At the conference, Karzai threw out the year 2014 as the timeframe for Afghan security forces to take over responsibility for all of the country’s provinces, thus for the first time suggesting a timetable that looks like this: the United States starts withdrawing in July 2011, and completes that withdrawal by 2014. That’s far too long, and it seems unsustainable in terms of American political and public opinion, but it’s roughly in line with the current drawdown in Iraq, which began in 2008 and which is scheduled to end with the removal of all US forces by the end of 2011. A concrete deal with the Taliban, its allies (such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), and Pakistan would help accelerate Karzai’s Afghan timetable, though Karzai would probably like to have the United States stick around for at least that long as a guarantee, among other things, against his being beheaded.

The latest news report on the growing ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan is in the Washington Post today, which headlined it: "Afghanistan builds up strategic partnership with Pakistan." Says the Post:

There has also been accelerated diplomacy at the highest levels, with Karzai traveling to Islamabad in March and recent visits to Kabul by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the head of the Pakistani army, and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Pakistan’s intelligence chief, to discuss potential cooperation on jump-starting negotiations with the Taliban.

   Those developments have raised concern that Karzai is moving faster than many Afghans would like to try to broker a political deal that could bring the Taliban back into the government. Some officials in Karzai’s office say they fear that Pakistan might not negotiate sincerely and will use its influence with the Taliban in ways that hurt Afghans.

   [Pakistan Foreign Minister] Qureshi said Monday that Pakistan wants the modest role of "facilitator." During Karzai’s visit to Islamabad in March, Pakistani officials asked the Afghan president to develop a "strategic framework"—including proposals for negotiating with the Taliban. They are now waiting for the Afghans "to share their plans and programs with us," Qureshi said.

Last month, Karzai fired two top Afghan security officials, his interior minister and the head of the Afghanistan’s intelligence service, both of whom were opposed to the closer relationship with Pakistan (and who were sympathizers of the mostly Tajik, anti-Pashtun Northern Alliance). Since then, Afghanistan’s ties with Pakistan have accelerated.

I don’t think women’s rights are at the top of their agenda. But if it ends the war, I’m all for it.