LONDON Politicians and Western army chiefs mapped out the contours of an Afghanistan exit strategy on Monday, with three generals holding out the possibility of an eventual peace deal with the Taliban.
British army chief General Sir David Richards told Reuters negotiations with the Taliban could be considered but must be done from a position of strength. "So it's a matter of timing, not the principle."
He spoke ahead of a conference in London expected to agree a framework for the Afghan government to begin taking charge of security in line with a 2011 timetable set by President Barack Obama to start drawing down U.S. troops.
His comments echoed those made by senior U.S. army chiefs, including General David Petraeus, who said the fighting would get harder before the situation improved as Washington sends an extra 30,000 troops to break a stalemate in Afghanistan.
But both Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, held out the possibility of eventual talks with the Taliban leadership to end a war now into its ninth year.
"The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility," Petraeus told The Times newspaper.
McChrystal said he hoped increased troop levels would weaken the Taliban enough for its leaders to accept a peace deal.
"It's not my job to extend olive branches, but it is my job to help set conditions where people in the right positions can have options on the way forward," he told the Financial Times.
"I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," he said when asked whether he would be content to see Taliban leaders in a future Afghan government.
The Taliban has been downbeat about possible peace talks.
"We cannot say how soon we will achieve victory. Our mission is sacred, victory and defeat are in the hands of God," Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a Taliban spokesman, told Reuters in Kabul.
"But Afghans will defeat this regime as they did that of the Russian-backed regime."
The United States and its allies are hoping the increased troop strength and a fresh commitment to Afghanistan -- including funding for a formal reintegration program for Taliban fighters -- will help break the insurgency.
"I think it's clear we're at a decisive moment in the Afghan campaign," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
"The stakes are very high indeed, not just for our service men and women, but also for stability in South Asia and the credibility of the institutions that have provided the political and security ballast for Europe over the last 50 or 60 years."
Britain is hoping to use the meeting in London, to be attended by ministers from some 60 countries, to galvanize support for Afghanistan and convince regional players to co-operate in bringing stability to the country.
In Istanbul, Turkey hosted a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari -- the latest in a series of talks it has used to try to reduce distrust between the two neighbors.
Pakistan has long played an important role in Afghan affairs, having nurtured the Afghan Taliban during the 1990s, but Kabul remains suspicious that Islamabad is pursuing its own agenda in the country to the detriment of Afghanistan.
In a sign of the potential significance of the meeting, the talks were being attended by military and intelligence officials from both countries, including the head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
While officials refused to be drawn on details, Karzai said Afghanistan had the backing of its allies, including the United States and Europe, for renewed efforts at reconciliation.
He also said Afghanistan had lobbied in the past for Taliban members to be removed from a U.N. terrorism list without success but now detected a greater willingness.
"I will be making a similar statement in the London conference to the effect of removing the Taliban names from the U.N. sanctions list," he said.
Attempts to win over Taliban fighters have met with only limited success in the past, and some argue that reconciliation will succeed only if the leadership is brought on board.
Pakistan could be in a position to help mediate in those talks. According to Washington, Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar are based in Pakistan, though Islamabad denies this.
British army chief Richards said, however, in answer to a question that the ISI should not have sole control over the process.
"I think that the ISI has got to be part of the process but not left alone to get on with it. It's a team effort in which I would very much involve or include Pakistan," he said.
Early last year Obama appeared to rule out any possibility of talks with leaders of the insurgency, saying that the "uncompromising core of the Taliban" must be defeated.
But Richards said the prospect of the Taliban cutting ties to al Qaeda was "one of the attractions" of any deal.
With public opinion turning against the war in Afghanistan, governments are under pressure to deliver results quickly and then start bringing some of their troops home.
(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore and Daren Butler in Istanbul, and Luke Baker and David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Michael Roddy)