LONDON A conference on Afghanistan which only a week ago was seen as the political stunt of an enfeebled British government could now mark the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan.
The 60-nation meeting in London on Thursday has been preceded by an unexpected groundswell of support, including from top military commanders, for an eventual political settlement with the Taliban.
"There seems to be an emerging consensus that when all is said and done, the Afghan jihadist movement -- in one form or another -- will be part of the government in Kabul," U.S. think tank Stratfor said.
The conference is expected to back plans to win over Taliban foot soldiers to weaken the insurgency as Washington sends in an extra 30,000 troops. But the world's attention has already shifted dramatically toward a potential exit strategy.
Western countries are hoping a final military and civilian push will let them negotiate a settlement from a position of strength and start bringing some troops home by 2011.
"We will see at the end of this year the light on the horizon," NATO military chief Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola said.
Failure could present Western governments with the choice of keeping large numbers of troops in Afghanistan to fight an increasingly unpopular conflict or leaving just enough forces to back up a weak Afghan government in a growing civil war.
Only last March, President Barack Obama talked of an "uncompromising core of the Taliban" which must be defeated.
But facing dwindling public support for a war now into its ninth year and economic problems at home, Washington and its allies have been scaling back their ambitions for Afghanistan.
"They have defined success as the absence of a Taliban revolution," said Steve Coll at the New America Foundation. "That is an achievable goal."
Quite how far U.S. ambitions had been scaled back was underlined on Monday when General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said he hoped the extra troops would weaken the Taliban enough for them to accept a peace deal.
DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT
Moving toward a political settlement, however, and actually achieving it without reigniting the many regional rivalries which have made Afghanistan the battleground for proxy wars for 30 years will be incredibly difficult to pull off.
The Taliban have also so far shown no willingness in public to enter peace talks, though some analysts argue they too are tired of the fighting, and realize they are no better placed than the Americans to win power by military means alone.
"Both sides have similar perceptions that neither side can fully win," said Antonio Giustozzi, a London School of Economics researcher on the Taliban. "It is exactly at this point of equilibrium that negotiations become possible."
The Taliban on Wednesday renewed a demand that foreign troops leave Afghanistan and dismissed plans to win over individual fighters with cash as a trick.
But in a comments posted on one of their websites, they also repeated a statement made by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar late last year that they posed no threat to the West.
Some have interpreted these statements from Omar, who Washington says is based in Pakistan, as signaling a greater willingness to break with al Qaeda, a crucial precondition of Western countries for any eventual peace deal.
Western officials say there are no plans right now to enter talks with the Taliban leadership. This would require a repudiation of ties to al Qaeda and a willingness to participate in Afghan politics, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said.
But diplomats are already working behind the scenes to line up a consensus on the shape of any political settlement.
Britain's Labour government, accused of using the conference to boost its profile before an election due by June, says all countries must cooperate rather than compete over Afghanistan.
Among those based placed to mediate is Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government in Kabul before it was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Diplomats say Pakistan is looking for some reassurances about its own security before it is willing to help. Among its concerns is India's growing presence in Afghanistan.
It also wants to secure its own border with Afghanistan, which even under the Taliban was never recognized by Kabul, and end a spate of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, who share the Afghan Taliban's ethnic Pashtun identity.
India, with memories of Afghanistan being used as a base by Kashmir-focused militant groups well before 9/11, would be wary of any increase in Pakistan's influence there.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, which have backed rival groups in the region in the past, would also watch each other's moves with suspicion; while permanent U.N. Security Council members Russia and China would expect a strong say in an eventual political settlement.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul, Bill Maclean in London; and David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Editing by Jon Hemming)