ISTANBUL Turkey hosts a meeting of Afghanistan's neighbors next week to seek a common approach to the conflict that could center on gathering international support for negotiating some kind of peace with the Taliban.
The regional meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday will pave the way for an international conference in London on January 28 that may set a timetable for transferring responsibility for some areas to Afghan control.
Muslim Turkey is also hosting a meeting of the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday, and will bring together intelligence and military officials from the two countries with a history of deep mutual mistrust.
A senior Pakistani official with knowledge of the diplomacy involving multiple governments told Reuters initiatives were underway to begin negotiations with some Taliban and this was likely to surface during the meetings in Istanbul and London.
"The Turks are playing a behind-the-scenes roll patching up relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan," the official said. "There's a lot happening behind the scenes that people don't know about."
Turkey, a NATO member, has a special relationship with both Afghanistan and Pakistan that can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire's ties to South and Central Asia, and was using its influence to bring an end to the conflict with the Taliban.
"The Turks are among those working on negotiations with the Taliban -- not all the Taliban, it's being selectively done."
The Afghans believe Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence service covertly supports Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and allows the insurgency to be directed from Pakistani soil.
Pakistan's military suspect Afghan intelligence of working with old rival India to cause trouble on its western border, and support separatists in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday urged Pakistan to begin hunting down Afghan Taliban on the border.
Ahmed Rashid, a respected Pakistani journalist and author who is often consulted by Western policymakers, said Karzai would use the Istanbul and London meetings to pitch for support for negotiations to end the Taliban insurgency.
"The key issue at the London conference and the meetings leading up to it will be whether neighboring countries will support dialogue with the Taliban, which Karzai will advocate."
"Karzai can be expected to set out reasons for a tactical dialogue and for a strategic dialogue with the Taliban leadership."
Karzai has talked of opening negotiations with the Taliban many times in the past, but the insurgency has intensified over the past two years.
Neighbors fear the potential for the conflict in Afghanistan could further destabilize a volatile region; some worry about the presence of U.S. forces and others are concerned over the threat posed by the spread of Islamist militancy.
"There are signs that Iran, India and Russia are shifting their position and would support negotiations with the Taliban, having adamantly opposed them in the past, and that consensus over the need for negotiations is building among countries in the region," Rashid said.
U.S. President Barack Obama is sending 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan as part of a strategy to speed up training of Afghan forces and is pressing Karzai to improve governance after his re-election in a fraud-tainted vote last August.
Turkish officials said it was important to look at how Afghanistan's neighbors could help support stability in Afghanistan and that this was crucial for the London conference.
"It is important to hear the voice of the neighbors. The regional aspect is one of the elements to achieve success and to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans," a senior Turkish official said.
An EU diplomat in Brussels saw the meetings in Turkey preparing ground for the London conference.
"Clearly there are going to be a lot of contacts among all the players, including the Russians and Turkey, in the run up to the London conference. That's just part of preparing for a big conference like this, that I think everyone now sees as happening at a crucial time."
(Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia and Zerin Elci in Ankara, and Luke Baker in Brussels; Editing by Jon Hemming)