First of all, the general pointed out that Pakistan has done some serious fighting in terrorist strongholds and shed a lot of blood. Over the past two years, Maliks forces have been enlarged to 147,000 soldiers, mainly by relocating more than 50,000 from the Indian border. They have largely controlled militant activities in the Swat Valley, for example, which entailed two hard offensives with major casualties. But they have steadfastly declined to mount a major assault against North Waziristan - a mountainous region of terrorist Deadwoods populated by battle-toughened outlaws. Yes, Malik said, North Waziristan is a terrible situation, but his forces are responsible for roughly 1,500 miles of border, they police an archipelago of rough towns in the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and by the way, they had a devastating flood to handle last year. If you are not able to close the Mexican border, when you have the technology at your call, when there is no war, he said, how can you expect us to close our border, especially if you are not locking the doors on your side? Americans who know the area well concede that, for all our complaints, Pakistan doesnt push harder in large part because it cant. Roughly 4,000 Pakistani troops have died in these border wars - more than the number of all the allied soldiers killed in Afghanistan. And there is another, fundamental problem, Malik said. There is simply no popular support for stepping up the fight in what is seen as Americas war. Ordinary Pakistanis feel they have paid a high price in collateral damage, between the civilian casualties from unmanned drone attacks and the blowback from terror groups within Pakistan. When you go into North Waziristan and carry out some major operation, there is going to be a terrorist backlash in the rest of the country, Malik told me. The political mood, or the public mood, is 'no more operations. In late October, Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad, leading a delegation that included Petraeus, recently confirmed as CIA director, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Mullens successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Petraeus used to refer to Holbrooke as my diplomatic wingman, a bit of condescension he apparently intended as a tribute. This time, the security contingent served as diplomacys wingmen. The trip was intended as a show of unity and resolve by an administration that has spoken with conflicting voices when it has focused on Pakistan at all. For more than four hours, the Americans and a potent lineup of Pakistani counterparts talked over a dinner table. Perhaps the most revealing thing about the dinner was the guest list. The nine participants included Kayani and Pasha, but not President Zardari or Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who provided the dining room at his own residence and made himself scarce. The only representative of the civilian government was Clintons counterpart, the new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, a 34-year-old rising star with the dark-haired beauty, a degree in hospitality management from the University of Massachusetts. Based on my conversations with American officials across the government, the US has developed a grudging respect for Kayani, whom they regard as astute, straightforward, respectful of the idea of democratic government. Zardari, whose principal claim to office is that he is the widower of the assassinated and virtually canonized Benazir Bhutto, has been mainly preoccupied with building up his patronage machine for elections in 2013. The Americans expect little from him and dont see a likely saviour among his would-be political challengers. (As this article goes to press, Zardari is recovering from chest pains in a hospital in Dubai; there are rumours he wont return.) So, Kayani it is. The day after the marathon dinner, Clintons entourage took over the Serena Hotel for a festival of public diplomacy - a press conference with the foreign minister, followed by a town meeting with young Pakistanis and then a hardball round-table interview with a circle of top editors and anchors. Clintons visit was generally portrayed, not least in the Pakistani press, as a familiar ritual of America talking tough to Pakistan. In the town meeting, a woman asked why America always played the role of bossy mother-in-law, and that theme delighted editorial cartoonists for days. But the private message to the Pakistanis - and a more careful reading of Clintons public performance - reflected a serious effort to reboot a troubled relationship. Clinton took care to pay tribute to Pakistani losses in the war against terror in the past decade - in addition to the military, an estimated 30,000 civilian dead, the equivalent of a 9/11 every year. She ruled out sending American ground troops into Pakistani territory. She endorsed a Pakistani plea that US forces in Afghanistan do a better job of cleaning up militant sanctuaries on their own side of the border. Questioned by a prominent television anchor, she repudiated Mullens testimony, disavowing any evidence of ISI complicity in the attack on Americas embassy in Kabul. Now, every intelligence agency has contacts with unsavoury characters, she said. I dont think you would get any denial from either the ISI or the CIA that people in their respective organizations have contacts with members of groups that have different agendas than the governments. But that doesnt mean that they are being directed or being approved or otherwise given a seal of approval. That particular riff may have caused jaws to clench at the CIA compound in Langley, Va. The truth is, according to half a dozen senior officials with access to the intelligence, the evidence of Pakistans affinity for terrorists is often circumstantial and ambiguous, a matter of intercepted conversations in coded language, and their dealings are thought to be more pragmatic than ideological, more a matter of tolerating than directing, but the relationship goes way beyond contacts with unsavoury characters. And yet the Pakistanis have been helpful - Abbottabad aside - against Al Qaeda, which is Americas first priority and which the Pakistanis recognize as a menace to everyone. They have shared intelligence, provided access to interrogations and coordinated operations. Before the fatal border mishap Thanksgiving weekend, one US official told me, anti-terror cooperation between the CIA and Pakistani intelligence had been very much on the upswing. The most striking aspect of Clintons trip, however, was her enthusiastic embrace of what is now called reconciliation - which is the polite word for negotiating with the Taliban. Pakistan has long argued that the way to keep Afghanistan from coming to grief is to cut a deal with at least some of the Taliban. That would also mean Afghanistan could get by with a smaller, cheaper army. The notion has been anathema to the Americans tasked with killing Taliban; a principled stand against negotiating with terrorists is also a political meme that acquires particular potency in election seasons, as viewers of the Republican debates can attest. Almost unnoticed, though, reconciliation has moved to a central place in Americas strategy and has become the principal assignment for US officials in the region. Clinton first signalled this in a speech to the Asia Society last February, when she refocused Afghanistan strategy on its original purpose, isolating the terrorists at war with America, meaning Al Qaeda. The speech was buried beneath other news at the time, but in early October, Tom Donilon, Obamas national security adviser, met Kayani in Abu Dhabi to stress to sceptical Pakistani leaders that she was serious. Clintons visit to Islamabad with her generals in tow was designed to put the full weight of the US behind it. Clinton publicly acknowledged that the ISI (in fact, it was General Pasha in person) had already brokered a preliminary meeting between a top American diplomat and a member of the Haqqani clan. Nothing much came of the meeting, news of which promptly leaked, but Clinton said America was willing to sit down with the Taliban. She said that what had once been preconditions for negotiations - renouncing violence, shunning Al Qaeda and accepting Afghanistans constitution, including freedoms for women - were now goals. In diplomacy, no process is fully initiated until it has been named. A meeting of Pakistani political parties in Islamabad had adopted a rubric for peace talks with the Taliban, a slogan the Pakistanis repeated at every opportunity: Give peace a chance. If having this project boiled down to a John Lennon lyric diminished the gravitas of the occasion, Clinton didnt let on. Within the American policy conglomerate, not everyone is terribly upbeat about the prospect of reconciling with the Taliban. The Taliban have so far publicly rejected talks, and the turban-bomb killing of Rabbani was a serious reversal. There is still some suspicion - encouraged by Afghanistan and India - about Pakistans agenda. Most Americans I met who are immersed in this problem put little stock in either of those notions. The Pakistanis may not be the most trustworthy partners in Asia, but they arent idiots. They know, at least at the senior levels, that a resurgent Taliban means not just perpetual mayhem on the border but also an emboldening of indigenous jihadists whose aim is nothing less than a takeover of Pakistan. But agreeing on the principle of a stable Afghanistan is easier than defining it, or getting there. After Clinton left Islamabad, a senior Pakistani intelligence official I wanted to meet arrived for breakfast with me and a colleague at Islamabads finest hotel. With a genial air of command, he ordered eggs Benedict for the table, declined my request to turn on a tape recorder, (Just keep my name out of it, he instructed later) and settled into an hour of polished spin. The Taliban learned its lesson in the madrassas and applied them ruthlessly, he said, as the Hollandaise congealed. Now the older ones have seen 10 years of war, and reconciliation is possible. Their outlook has been tempered by reason and contact with the modern world. They have relatives and friends in Kabul. They have money from the opium trade. They watch satellite TV. They are on the Internet. On the other hand, he continued, if you kill off the midtier Taliban, the ones who are going to replace them - and there are many waiting in line, sadly - are younger, more aggressive and eager to prove themselves. So what would it take to bring the Taliban into a settlement? First, he said, stop killing them. Second, an end to foreign military presence, the one thing that always mobilizes the occupied in that part of the world. Third, an Afghan constitution framed to give more local autonomy, so that Pashtun regions could be run by Pashtuns. On the face of it, as my breakfast companion surely knows, those sound like three nonstarters, and taken together they sound rather like surrender. Even Clinton is not calling for a break in hostilities, which the Americans see as the way to drive the Taliban to the bargaining table. As for foreign presence, both the Americans and the Afghans expect some long-term residual force to stay in Afghanistan, to backstop the Afghan Army and carry out drone attacks against Al Qaeda. And while it is not hard to imagine a decentralised Afghanistan - in which traditionalists hold sway in the rural areas but cede the urban areas, where modern notions like educating girls have already made considerable headway - that would be hard for Americans to swallow. Clinton herself sounded pretty categorical on that last point when she told Pakistani interviewers: I cannot in good faith participate in any process that I think would lead the women of Afghanistan back to the dark ages. I will not participate in that. To questions of how these seemingly insurmountable differences might be surmounted, Marc Grossman, who replaced Holbrooke as Clintons special representative, replies simply: I dont know whether these people are reconcilable or not. But the job weve been given is to find out. If you look at reconciliation as a route to peace, it requires a huge leap of faith. Surely the Taliban have marked our withdrawal date on their calendars. The idea that they are so deeply weary of war - let alone watching YouTube and yearning to join the world they see on their laptops - feels like wishful thinking. But if you look at reconciliation as a step in couples therapy - a shared project in managing a highly problematic, ultimately critical relationship - it makes more sense. It gives Pakistan something it craves: a seat at the table where the future of Afghanistan is plotted. It gets Pakistan and Afghanistan talking to each other. It offers a supporting role to other players in the region - notably Turkey, which has taken on a more active part as an Islamic peace broker. It could drain some of the acrimony and paranoia from the US-Pakistan rhetoric. It might not save Afghanistan, but it could be a helpful start to saving Pakistan. What Clinton and company are seeking is a course of patient commitment that America, frankly, is not usually so good at. The relationship has given off some glimmers of hope - with US encouragement, Pakistan and India have agreed to normalize trade relations; the ISI has given American interrogators access to Osama bin Ladens wives. At least the US seems, for now, to be paying attention to the right problem. Bill Keller, a former executive editor of The Times, writes a column for the Op-Ed page. New York Times Concluded