Historians, policy makers and other analysts have gathered in Washington for meetings on how to deal with Afghanistan, now drought stricken, impoverished and under the harsh rule of the Taleban.

Talks with Afghanistan's Taleban have not been very productive, says Grant Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan and now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He likens it to two ships passing in the night. Even if the Taleban leaders want to talk, they do not seem to know how to go about it. There is a notable exception, says Ambassador Smith. The Taleban have been clear on the subject of illicit drugs: "The Taleban have almost completely eliminated poppy cultivation this crop year," Mr. Smith says. "It is important for the international community to come forward and respond to that, both for counter-narcotics reasons and also to show the Taleban that when it does something that the international community has been asking it to do, the international community responds.

As it continues to monitor the opium reduction, the United Nations can provide assistance in growing alternate crops. This could lead to agreement on other issues with the Taleban, and perhaps encourage its more moderate members.

Ambassador Smith hastens to add that Afghanistan is still host to Islamist radicals who threaten other parts of the region. Complicating matters, they are based in Tajikistan, and move through areas of that country controlled by Russian troops. The Islamist threat has many dimensions.

John Kountz, president of the Pacific Rim Information Service, says the Taleban rule, for all its oppression, is not the work of a small clique or its leader, Mullah Omar. In his opinion, it is based on a genuine consensus: "On the voice of the people, coming up though a representative, a spokesman, if you wish, and those spokesmen in turn getting together and achieving consensus about a specific issue," Mr Kountz says. "The most prominent [issue] in the news here recently was the Bamiyani Buddha destruction. It is my understanding that it took some four months and over 2,000 mullahs representing the people for whom they were speaking in order to make that decision." Mr. Kountz says this consensus partly explains why the Taleban have not released Osama bin Laden. They must get the agreement of the grass roots.

Some analysts think the Taleban are so fanatical they cannot last very long. They will fall of their own weight or divide into warring factions. But Mr. Kountz advises caution. He believes they are well rooted in Afghanistan: "They are, in the first place, more or less an extension of Islamic missionaries, or at least that is the perception of the people generally. They are filling a vacuum, which had been created by the Soviet occupation and subsequent migrations due to drought and other natural circumstance, wherein the tribal structure was disturbed," he said. "And in those areas where there was no tribal structure, the Taleban have taken the place of whatever governance had been in situ."

The United States should think first of helping Afghanistan, says Mr. Kountz, not the Taleban or any other faction. By unifying most of the country, however harshly, the Taleban have at least provided a point of contact. It is clear at present who is in charge.