The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president, who was trying to woo the Taliban makes peace talks even less likely. If Natos strategy in Afghanistan seems familiar, that may be because it increasingly seems borrowed from the Black Knight of Monty Python fame, who, after losing both arms, insists that its just a flesh wound. When Afghan insurgents laid waste to government buildings in Kabul last week, the US ambassador explained, perhaps in case wed misunderstood the 24-hour siege, that this really is not a very big deal. A day earlier hed lamented that the biggest problem in Kabul is traffic. Apparently not. A week on, someone has blown up Afghanistans former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in the heart of the capital. This is a big deal. It shatters the idea that our enemies are on the ropes, and pushes the country closer to civil war. Rabbani chaired the High Peace Council, a body tasked with bringing senior Taliban figures in from the cold, but he was always a strange choice as peacemaker. He was a blood-soaked Tajik warlord, who, alongside Afghanistans other minorities, had spent the 1990s battling the mostly Pashtun Taliban in a brutal civil war. Rabbani eventually led this Northern Alliance to victory in 2001, helped along by the US Air Force and CIA paramilitaries on horseback. Rabbanis allies formed a political party, the United National Front, and were given plum ministerial positions. Years later, with an insurgency raging, Hamid Karzai toyed with the idea of reconciling with the Taliban, perhaps even sharing power. When the US announced that its soldiers would leave by 2014, this became more urgent. Between 2006 and 2010, 80 per cent of the Afghan governments total spending came from outside. Its choice was simple: reconcile, or die a slow but sure death. But not everyone saw it like this. The northerners grew frightened. Some had grown fat on Western money in government, while others simply detested the Taliban for the same reasons we do. Last summer, Karzai sacked his anti-Taliban spy chief Amrullah Saleh to ease the way for talks. Saleh railed against this, insisting that there must not be a deal with the Taliban. Ever. Along with other veterans from the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan, hes emerged as a political force against reconciliation, drawing crowds of thousands with his denunciations of the Taliban. Rabbanis assassination is so dangerous precisely because it sharpens these fears of minority communities. The northern forces never disarmed, and theyve probably begun rebuilding their strength to prepare for the worst-case scenario. They would find willing sponsors. In the 1990s, Russia, Iran and India chipped in. Today, a richer and more ambitious India would hit back at the rise of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan that would result from any Taliban takeover. Delhi already sends billions of dollars, and probably sees Saleh and his allies as guarantors of Indian interests. In short, a civil war is a distinct possibility. It would further destabilise Pakistan, and extinguish all hope of nation-building in Afghanistan. Its hardly surprising, then, that the US ambassador would prefer to focus on the Kabul traffic rather than intractable ethnic politics. If the northerners are spooked by the prospect of a US withdrawal, why doesnt Washington stay in the country beyond 2014 and calm everyones nerves? The problem is that this would paper over the cracks. We were not fated to lose this war. It might have been possible to defeat the Taliban if we had enjoyed a reliable partner in Afghanistan, a reliable ally in Pakistan, and a political strategy that took the wind out of the insurgencys sails. Instead, we have a self-serving oligarchy in Kabul and a political strategy that shows no understanding of our terrible bargaining position. The overarching problem is that no party is interested in negotiations, because each is convinced it can win outright. The Afghan government, for its part, has expelled British diplomats who tried to talk to the Taliban. Last month, it leaked details of American meetings with a senior Taliban envoy, forcing him to flee. Both the US and the Taliban have opted for killing each others interlocutors, hardly a sound basis for diplomacy. The Americans argue that an aggressive campaign of night raids and assassinations allows us to negotiate from strength. In reality, it means that pragmatic older insurgents are replaced by ever-more radical diehards those who may well have killed Rabbani. If the Afghan government fails to reform itself, and negotiations lead nowhere, then the alternative is a gradual disintegration of the country. When Monty Pythons Black Knight is altogether limbless, he concedes to Arthur, well call it a draw. An Afghan draw would suit us. But our failure to lay the groundwork for this means that were just as likely to wind up in stalemate. Telegraph