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Peace talks with the Taliban hardly seem possible while American soldiers are dying on the Afghan battlefield, but they are a necessary step in what will certainly be a very long and difficult process.

On the one hand, the Taliban say they want to “open dialogue between the Taliban and the world.” On the other hand, they continue to launch deadly attacks.

Hours after Washington said its officials would meet with the insurgents, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings of four American service members in an overnight attack on Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.

Not that the Taliban was acting out of character. Indeed, they were sticking to their script. Attempts at peace talks have collapsed in the past; figuring out how to get beyond 12 years of war has proven difficult, to say the least.

Almost as soon as the latest effort to start peace talks was announced, an outraged Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he wouldn’t send a representative and suspended talks on a bilateral security agreement with the United States that would allow U.S. troops to stay after 2014. Karzai was angry that the new Taliban office in Qatar carries the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Afghans say no such thing exists.

The disagreement over a label is only one issue. The Taliban in the past have refused to meet with Karzai or his government, whom they have characterized as puppets of Washington. Indeed, Karzai is viewed with suspicion by the United States for contributing to the pervasive corruption in Afghanistan.

Whether peace talks can lead anywhere is a huge question. The sides have such fundamental differences that it’s difficult to believe that compromise is possible. However, peace talks, with or without the Afghan president, must be attempted. At stake is the future of Afghanistan and the orderly withdrawal by the end of next year of about 100,000 international combat troops, 68,000 of them from the United States.

The danger is that the Taliban will simply wait until most U.S. troops are gone, then step up their fight to overthrow Karzai.

What happens then? If the Taliban return to power, will Afghanistan remain a democracy in which women share power? Hardly. Remember that the Taliban shot a girl in the head last October as she was riding the bus to school in Pakistan. Her “crime” was her bold and public stand on education for girls. Thankfully, she survived.

It is hard to imagine the group that committed such a shocking crime would be willing to come to an agreement with the United States, which it distrusts, and the Afghan government, which it disrespects.

Given the divisions at play, peace talks will be an acrimonious, drawn-out process that moves in fits and starts. But if there is ever to be peace in this troubled region, it has to start somewhere.