Afghanistan's neighbors, including China, Iran and Pakistan, and the U.S., are meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday to try to develop a common approach to ending the Afghanistan war. Reports suggest that could include negotiations with the Taliban.
China's foreign minister and the British foreign secretary will participate, as well as the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, indicating the significance placed on the talks.
The U.S. will be represented by a deputy to special envoy Richard Holbrooke. In addition to Iran, China and Pakistan, officials from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will also attend.
The Istanbul meeting will pave the way for an international conference of more than 50 nations on Afghanistan to be held in London on January 28.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari were scheduled to meet in Istanbul today before the larger talks.
Masood Khalili, Afghanistan's ambassador to Turkey, told state news Anatolian the aim of the meeting was to "forge cooperation that might lead to reconciliation in the region. Everybody in the region is thirsty for peace."
A senior Pakistani official "with knowledge of the diplomacy involving multiple governments" told Reuters initiatives were under way to begin negotiations with some Taliban elements and said this was likely to surface during the meetings in Istanbul and London.
"The Turks are playing a behind-the-scenes role patching up relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan," the official said. "There's a lot happening behind the scenes that people don't know about."
"The Turks are among those working on negotiations with the Taliban - not all the Taliban, it's being selectively done."
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid told Reuters, "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."
Rashid said Iran, India and Russia appear to be moving toward supporting negotiations with the Taliban, which they had strongly opposed earlier. "Consensus over the need for negotiations is building among countries in the region," he said.
A potentially important development is that the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan will have an opportunity to meet during the London conference. The long-standing bitter tensions between India and Pakistan are a factor in the conflict in Afghanistan, and easing India-Pakistan relations is seen as a key ingredient to achieving Afghan peace.
"Afghanistan has for far too long ... been the ground on which regional powers have essentially exercised or fought out some of their tensions by backing different groups against each other," British ambassador to Kabul Mark Sedwill told reporters (and he should know, as Britain was famously one of those powers) in a press conference about the London meeting.
"That has to stop. The Great Game is over and Afghanistan has to become a point of stability within the region," he said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations special representative in Kabul has called on the Afghan government to move to drop some Taliban leaders from the UN terrorist list as a step toward opening negotiations with at least some sections of the Taliban.
The UN official, Kai Eide, also urged the U.S. military to speed up its review of detainees it is holding in Afghanistan.
Those two steps, he told New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, could open the way to direct talks between Afghan officials and some Taliban leaders. "I think the time has come to do it," Eide said.
The Afghan government has to initiate removal of names from the UN terrorist list. According to Filkins, some Taliban leaders have indicated that they might be willing to engage in some sort of discussions if their names were stricken from the so-called "black list." The list, they claim, prevents them from appearing in public for fear of arrest.
Top Taliban leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar should stay on the list, Eide said. But some second-tier leaders, who are not necessarily associated with terrorist acts but might be able to speak for the movement, he said, should be taken off the list.
U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke indicated support for the idea "on a case-by-case basis."
U.S. officials say they are reviewing the case of every detainee in Afghanistan. This month, after years of keeping the names of detainees secret, the U.S. military released the names of 645 detainees being held in the main detention center outside of Kabul.
Since September, when the new review process began, the cases of 576 detainees have been reviewed, and 66 of those have been released, according to a U.S. military spokesman cited by Filkins. The review will be completed in March.
Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari pose for cameras before a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, late Sunday, Jan. 24. (AP/Osman Orsal, Pool)