A lot happening on the AfPak front.

It’s Pakistan week in Washington, and nearly the entire Pakistan government is in town for meetings with the Obama administration. But the real action is half a world away, where a delegation from the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party (Hezb-i Islami), a key ally of the Taliban, has sent a peace delegation to Kabul for meetings with the Afghan government of President Karzai.

It’s the most important peace initiative since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. And here I make a bold prediction: the war in Afghanistan will be pretty much over by July, 2011. Like the war in Iraq, which is winding down as U.S. forces withdraw, the end of the war in Afghanistan will be messy, a lot of loose ends will be left over, and it will be unsatisfying to all sides.

Let’s remember, first of all, who Hekmatyar is. He’s not exactly an anti-American firebrand. During the CIA-sponsored anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s, he was the prime recipient of aid from Saudi Arabia, the CIA, and Pakistan’s ISI. He had a well-earned reputation as a brutal thug, but then so did many of Karzai’s current warlord allies. During the pre-Taliban civil war of the early 1990s, he was an enthusiastic participant, and since then he’s emerged as an ally of the Taliban, based in Pakistan and quietly receiving covert support from the ISI since 9/11. He is a committed Islamist.

But, according to the New York Times, in a piece by Carlotta Gall, the paper’s long-time reporter in South Asia, Hekmatyar’s delegation to Kabul has proposed a peace plan that is also supported by the Taliban, contingent on the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. Gall writes:

“Representatives of a major insurgent faction have presented a formal 15-point peace plan to the Afghan government, the first concrete proposal to end hostilities since President Hamid Karzai said he would make reconciliation a priority after his re-election last year. …

“His representatives met Monday with President Karzai and other Afghan officials in the first formal contact between a major insurgent group and the Afghan government after almost two years of backchannel communications, which diplomats say the United States has supported.

“A spokesman for the delegation, Mohammad Daoud Abedi, said the Taliban, which makes up the bulk of the insurgency, would be willing to go along with the plan if a date was set for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.”

The terms of the peace plan, called the National Rescue Agreement, aren’t exactly extremist in nature:

“The Hezb-i-Islami proposal, while categorical about the demand for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan, and to end military operations and detentions, goes some way toward meeting the demands of Western nations and the Afghan government on other issues.

“It accepts having the current government to stay in power, and having the Afghan police, army and intelligence services assume responsibility for security, while a seven-member national security council is formed as the ultimate decision-making body until foreign forces leave and new elections are held.

“A future elected parliament would have the right to review the Constitution, and the Afghan courts would prosecute those accused of corruption, drug smuggling, theft of the national wealth, and war crimes.”

Of course, the opening of peace talks isn’t the end of talks, just the beginning. In a month or so, Karzai plans to convene a jirga, or council of tribal elders and others, to discuss an arrangement for reconciliation with the insurgency, including the Taliban, the Islamic Party, and anyone else who wants to take part. Karzai’s initiative was encouraged strongly by the British and the rest of NATO and the EU, who’ve turned decidedly against the idea of prolonged war in Afghanistan. The United States’ views on the whole effort are decidedly more mixed, since the counterinsurgency (COIN) and nation-building cult in Washington is far more committed than the Europeans to a decades-long program of war and rebuilding in Afghanistan. But Obama, I believe, wants to end the war in Afghanistan before running for reelection in 2012, so he can run as the president who ended President Bush’s two misguided wars. In the end, Obama is likely to support a negotiated end to the fighting; indeed, that is precisely why the president announced last December that U.S. forces would start to withdraw from Afghanistan in July, 2011.

Although the Taliban and Hekmatyar want the U.S. withdrawal to start in July, 2010, it’s an opening gambit. The head of the Islamic Party delegation in Kabul told Gall: “This is a start, this is not the word of the Koran that we cannot change it.”

So what of Pakistan? In the end, a decisive role will be played by Pakistan, because of that country’s vast influence with the Taliban, with the Islamic Party, and with the even more radical group around the Haqqani family, whose movement makes up the third part of the insurgency in Afghanistan. (The Haqqanis, according to experts, are much closer to the dead-enders in Al Qaeda than the others.)

An important story in the Washington Post today by Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard reports that Pakistan realizes that the end-game in Afghanistan is coming more quickly than it expected, and so Pakistan is scrambling to get its ducks in a row in preparation for a settlement of the war. Pakistan’s main interest, as always, is in securing what it thinks of as a strategic interest in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India, and recently Pakistan has tried to up the ante so that it gets a seat at the table. In January, for instance, the Pakistanis offered to help train Afghan military forces. In the end, Pakistan will be critical, even decisive, in bringing the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and Haqqani to the bargaining table, and indeed it’s almost certain that Pakistan is playing a leading role behind the scenes in making that happen already.

Reports the Post:

“Pakistani officials are also seeking reassurance that a substantial U.S. military presence will remain in Afghanistan long after Obama’s promised withdrawal begins in mid-2011 and that their traditional adversary, India, will not be allowed to expand its strategic presence there. The Pakistani military and intelligence service see their long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban as insurance against the possibility of an unfriendly government in Kabul. In exchange for weakening those ties, they want a seat at the table for any Afghan reconciliation talks, and a guarantee that U.S. commitments will not evaporate if and when the Taliban and al-Qaeda are no longer deemed a U.S. security threat.

“‘There is a sort of panic in Pakistan that the endgame may be earlier than Pakistan had thought, and that Pakistan isn’t positioned well at all to protect its own interests,’ said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad and a former Pakistani foreign secretary.”

For its cooperation, Pakistan wants a lot: not only U.S. assurances that Washington won’t abandon it, but tons of military hardware, billions of dollars in U.S. economic aid, and even a nuclear agreement parallel to the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal that was signed by President Bush. Christine Fair, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests that a U.S.-Pakistan nuclear deal isn’t out of the question, as long as it’s “conditions-based,” and she adds:

“Although the United States has professed a need for a ‘strategic relationship’ with Pakistan and has offered lucrative financial allurements and conventional arms since the 1950s, a genuinely strategic relationship has been beguiled by the reality that both states have divergent strategic aims. Washington wants Islamabad to give up what it sees as the only tools in its arsenal to secure its interests at home and abroad: jihadi terrorism under the security of its nuclear umbrella.

“But the United States is going to have to offer something in exchange: recognition and strategic support. Such a deal could create the conditions of trust whereby other initiatives, such as a limited security guarantee — negotiated with India’s explicit input — would be welcomed.”

The big question hovering over all of this is: Does the Obama administration have the savvy to undertake a vast, regional approach that sees Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China components and participants in a deal? Can it make all of those moving parts fit together? Can it do that, while doing the same in Iraq, where it was to work closely with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan? And can it do all of that while hammering away at the Israel-Palestine conundrum, which is approaching a major turning point, too? Stay tuned.