Nobody batted an eyelid as Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef checked into a central London hotel last week: no one remembered the man who appeared on their television screens in the days after 9/11, proclaiming Osama bin Ladens innocence. His arrival marked the first time a Western government had allowed entry to a former official of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime that ruled the country until 2001. Britains decision to do so shows just how serious it is about the search for peace in Afghanistan. It was only last summer that Zaeef was removed from a United Nations blacklist. He earlier spent four years in Guantanamo Bay, charged with co-ordinating Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces around Kabul. Now, he has emerged as key player in secret negotiations between Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and the Talibans supreme commander, Mullah Muhammad Omar. The deal that Zaeef is thought to have discussed with Foreign Office officials is this: in return for power in parts of southern Afghanistan, the Taliban would accept the authority of the Kabul government and expel Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Proponents of the deal say that giving the Taliban a share of power is a small price to pay for ending the war in Afghanistan. Karzai, who believes that a peace deal would shore up his flagging legitimacy, agrees. While it might be true, I wouldnt suggest anyone hold their breath in anticipation of such a deal being struck. First, the commanders talking peace arent the ones fighting the Talibans war. Figures such as Zaeef, Maulvi Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar and Mullah Abdul Kabir are middle-aged men who have been away from the front line for years. Real power, the scholar Thomas Ruttig has pointed out, is devolving to a younger, more radical generation of Taliban commanders. Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban affiliate with close links to Al-Qaeda and Pakistani warring groups, has more on-ground clout than the peacemakers. Second, it is unclear whether the pro-peace commanders have sufficient influence to deliver on their promise to sever ties with Al-Qaeda. Most belonged to a faction grouped around Mohammad Rabbani Akhund, who opposed bin Laden in the belief that his international 'project would destroy the Taliban state. But their efforts came to nothing. Mullah Omar chose not to act against bin Laden when the Al-Qaeda chief said that killing the Americans and their allies, civilian and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim. Indeed, after Al-Qaeda bombed the US naval ship Cole in 1998, the Taliban threatened to retaliate with full force if bin Laden was harmed. The Talibans leadership also encouraged jihadists to gather in Afghanistan: Julie Sirrs, a researcher who visited the country just months before the 9/11 attacks, interviewed more than 100 Pakistani, Yemeni, Chinese and British jihadists who had trained at the camps there. And less than a month before 9/11, we know from Zaeefs own memoirs, the Taliban received warnings that bin Laden was planning attacks on the US - but it did nothing to stop him. Zaeef is thought to have argued that the Taliban has learned its lessons. Perhaps it has: being at the wrong end of American military power has often proved educative. The Talibans pro-dialogue leaders realise that time is running out for them. Their monopoly of power in southern Afghanistan is being challenged by warlords tacitly backed by the west, such as Karzais brother Ahmad Karzai, Abdul Razik and Gul Agha Sherzai. The Foreign Office believes the desperation of the old guard gives reason to hope a deal can be done. So does Joseph Biden, the US vice-president, along with many experts. But some key policy-makers disagree. General David Petraeus, the supreme commander of western forces in Afghanistan, with victory in his sights, argues that the Taliban can be degraded to a point where individual commanders will come to the table without conditions. There are also concerns that talking to the Taliban could lead its now-peaceful rivals to sharpen their swords. Amarullah Saleh, who was sacked as Afghanistans intelligence chief partly because of his opposition to the peace negotiations, has already lobbied old allies such as India to rearm the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Last month, Saleh said he was not opposed to the Taliban playing according to the script of democracy. For that, he said, they should be demobilised, disarmed, reintegrated the way the Northern Alliance was. It is improbable, though, that the rank and file would sign up to this. Mullah Omar himself, pressured by both hawks and doves, has sent out mixed signals. He gave assurances that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others, but he also rejected talks. Zaeef has proved willing to swap the black turban he wore as a Taliban official for the white skullcap of the pious Muslim; his Kalashnikov for the hunting rifle he used in Scotland during the brief vacation that followed his visit; his Kandahar bunker for the congenial Charing Cross Hotel. But the road to peace in Afghanistan continues to be as dangerous as ever before - and all those who traverse it must beware of booby-traps and ambushes. The Telegraph