President Barack Obamas speech outlining his roadmap for Afghanistan was in many ways as expected. Having tripled the American military contingent, he pledged to withdraw one-third - 33,000 troops beginning with 10,000 - by the end of this year and the remaining by the summer of next year with end of combat operations by 2014. It was a pragmatic approach that took into account the declining support for the decade-long war effort, which had cost valuable lives and a trillion and a half dollars at a time when America was hit by recession and high unemployment. While the US military high command and Obamas right-wing critics will not be happy with this drawdown, the President has calculated that giving priority now to nation building in America itself will be popular and pivotal in his 2012 re-election campaign. Analysts are beginning to ask, what effect this will have on Afghanistan and the negotiations with the Taliban, and the neighbouring countries and the region. However, it will become increasingly clear that Obamas speech has put into motion an irreversible process, the end outcome of which remains to be seen. A distinction has now been drawn between the insurgency that has consumed the American combat operations and Al-Qaeda terrorists. One category is the reconcilable Taliban, who would divorce themselves from Al-Qaeda, negotiate to give up violence and work within the Afghan constitutional system. While the second category, the irreconcilables - those allied to Al-Qaeda and global terrorism - will remain targets. This was foretold when the UNSC agreed to bifurcate the previously common Al-Qaeda and Taliban lists of proscribed individuals and organisations. Now all parties involved, within and outside Afghanistan, will have to adjust to the resulting dynamics that none of them had or have the ability to influence. Some of them may be able to dovetail the new ground realities with their own objectives and thereby continue to maintain their existing relationship and relevance to the US. For others, despite such an objective, this may not be possible. Obamas speech laid out the parameters of the American position, and the curtailing of its original ambitions for nation building in Afghanistan to a state able to manage its own security. However, the pace at which this was to be done and the equation between the use of force and that of negotiations were not spelt out. One reason for this end game continuing to be opaque is the status of USAs negotiations with the Taliban. The US administration has been engaged in various contacts conducted outside Afghanistan. These would appear to be scoping missions through which the Americans are trying to assess the relative influence of the various Taliban leaders, particularly Mullah Omer and how monolithic or otherwise is the Taliban movement and insurgency. There are also other tracks discussing reconciliation: The high-level joint commission between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Trilateral Core Group with these two countries and the US. The two main questions, however, remain in the way of a political settlement with the Taliban. Firstly, Petraeus strategy of trying to wear down the Taliban has been combined with special operations to kill or capture its unit commanders. Mullah Omer himself remains a target. A continuation is unlikely to win over the Taliban. Secondly, the main declared Taliban objective calls for the total withdrawal of the foreign forces. While they remain, or if they remain in some form after 2014 that seems to be the objective of strategic talks between the Karzai government and the US, prospects for a settlement appear dim, although the Taliban may also be suffering from a fatigue factor and many may be willing to trade ending links with Al-Qaeda for a total withdrawal. Another dilemma for both the Afghan people and the neighbouring countries is the outline and duration of the American footprint in Afghanistan. On the one hand, this footprint, including drone strikes, is an incitement to the insurgency within Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. On the other hand, there is an apprehension that if America withdraws without encouraging a political settlement, Afghanistan may plunge back into the chaos that resulted when the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw and the West abandoned Afghanistan. It is this apprehension, which lies at the heart of the labyrinth that Afghanistan has become. One cannot say at this stage how this will be resolved. It will require more skill than employed before on the part of the US administration, an inter-Afghan understanding to live and let live, and for the neighbouring countries and regional influentials to confine their ambitions to an Afghanistan, that is, at peace within and with all its neighbours. If any of these interlocking elements goes out of synch, the prognosis for Afghanistan and the region will be bleak. There is a danger hinted at in Obamas speech that pressure on Pakistan, with its 2,560 km international border with Afghanistan, will mount to open another front in North Waziristan at a time when the US and NATO forces are abandoning our border areas adjacent to Dir, which has led to cross-border incursions from the war-torn country. Afghanistan cannot be solved at Pakistans cost, nor will such a situation be sustainable within Afghanistan itself. One thing that can be said is that despite everything Pakistan performs best under pressure, as the sanctions period that did not slow down our quest for a nuclear capability has shown. If we are forced to stand on our feet more, in the long-term it will be to our benefit. n The writer is a retired Ambassador.