Britain’s Guardian newspaper reveals today that the U.S. government has been involved in indirect talks with the Pakistan-based Haqqani clan allied with al Qaeda.

It goes further than yesterday’s Washington Post, which reported that the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai had held top-level contacts with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership headed by Mullah Omar in the Pakistani city of Quetta. But the Post said that the contacts did not include reaching out to the Haqqani network, whose members have been pounded by the escalated drone attacks in the border region of North Waziristan.

This is an interesting development given that the Obama administration has a set of principles for peace talks with the Taliban: that they renounce violence, break with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution, which guarantees rights for women. It remains to be seen whether Mullah Omar, who oversaw the Taliban’s reign of terror before being chased from power in 2001, will comply with the conditions set by the U.S. and Karzai governments. It seems even more unlikely that the even more ghastly Haqqani faction would embrace the idea of schooling for girls, never mind sever its links with al Qaeda.

Any negotiations with the Haqqani clan would be a shift in policy by the U.S., which has always been more resistant to talking to the Taliban than the British. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said yesterday that he was “not aware” of any U.S. involvement in the “Afghan-led process” on reconciliation. That is likely to remain the official U.S. position as long as the contacts with the Haqqanis continue via intermediaries.

The British point to comparisons with Northern Ireland and the distinction between the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein. They believe that it is time for the horrible Haqqanis to strike a deal.

The Obama administration is clearly looking for a way out of this war, which is hugely costly in blood and treasure. In the U.S., Obama’s deadline of next July for the start of a troop drawdown has been met with criticism on the ground that it provides the Taliban with a date certain to prepare for a surge of their own to regain power. In Afghanistan, the deadline is being interpreted as an encouragement to the insurgents to start talking as the foreign occupiers leave.

Either way, it looks like the future holds a return of the Taliban either through military victory or a power-sharing arrangement. Pity the Afghans; their suffering is not over yet.>