The presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan are seeking closer cooperation in the fight against Taliban militants during a summit in Istanbul today.
Correspondents report that a plan by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reach out to Taliban insurgents was expected to dominate Karzai's talks with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
The three-way talks take place ahead of the London Conference on Afghanistan that begins January 28. The conference is expected to focus on a framework for the Afghan government to take over responsibility for its own security.
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. That's because, despite battling its own Pakistan Taliban insurgency, officials in Islamabad have been reluctant to fight the Afghan Taliban.
Some experts say Pakistan may want to use the Afghan Taliban to counter the growing influence of India within Afghanistan if U.S.-led forces pull out of the country.
"The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and between President Karzai and President Zardari --- is extremely troubled," says Jean MacKenzie, the Kabul-based correspondent for the "Global Post" news website and the former Kabul-based country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
"Afghanistan is convinced that Pakistan is playing a negative role in Afghanistan, that Pakistan does not want to see a stable Afghanistan on its border and would be quite happy to have a Taliban regime in place [in Kabul]," MacKenzie says. "Turkey could perhaps play a mediating role in trying to bring the two sides closer together. But I think at this point in the relationship, it is going to take an awful lot of work to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan into a more productive relationship."
'Battle For His Legitimacy'
MacKenzie says today's three-way summit in Istanbul gives Karzai an opportunity to improve the image of his government ahead of the London Conference.
"Everyone is quite concerned with the London Conference and hoping that something concrete comes out of that conference. Karzai is fighting a battle for his own legitimacy and is hoping that the London Conference will re-spark the commitment of the international community toward Afghanistan and toward his government," MacKenzie says.
"I think that for the next few days, there is going to be a lot of work being done on that front to make Afghanistan appear to be a successful country that is trying its best to clean up its act on the corruption front and make positive steps toward resolving the conflict," she added.
Karzai is under intense pressure from his Western backers to strengthen Afghanistan's security forces at a time of worsening violence. He has been preparing a program to reintegrate some Taliban insurgents into Afghan society in order to encourage them to lay down arms.
Pakistan has been seeking to play a role in that process. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has said that it is reaching out to "all levels" of the Afghan Taliban in a bid to encourage peace.
Speaking from Istanbul today, Karzai's spokesman, Wahid Umar, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about the talks between Karzai and Gul today. He said they discussed the importance of the United Nations' willingness to consider the removal of the names of some Taliban militants from a terrorist blacklist in order to encourage peace talks.
"The president of Afghanistan expressed his happiness about the announcement made by Mr. Kai Eide [the UN special representative to Afghanistan] about their preparedness to consider a proposal by the Afghan government to remove some of the names of the Taliban from the blacklist. The president reported this to the president of Turkey.
"The president of Turkey conveyed to the Afghan president that it is very important that, apart from a military solution in Afghanistan, a political solution -- a political settlement -- is also sought. He said that Turkey, as an Islamic country, is going to be happy to play a role in political talks and a political settlement in Afghanistan."
Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, signaled his support for political talks with the Taliban in an interview published today in the "Financial Times." McChrystal said there has been enough fighting in Afghanistan and that he wants a negotiated political solution to the conflict.
MacKenzie said McChrystal's remarks are encouraging. But she says attempts at reconciliation so far by Kabul have fallen short of true negotiations toward a political solution.
"So far, at least, we have not seen any move toward negotiations with the Taliban. They are talking about dialogue. But in effect, what they are saying to the Taliban is, 'If you lay down your arms and accept our conditions, we will be very happy to let you come into our government.'
"Taliban officials that I have spoken with will say, 'This is not negotiation. This is surrender.' So until something fundamental changes, I think there is very little hope for actual progress on that front."
Shortly after their arrivals in Istanbul on January 24, Karzai and Zardari met separately with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Karzai is expected to travel to Germany on January 26 after completing his talks with Zardari and Gul.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she will discuss with Karzai how best to coordinate Afghan and international efforts to rebuild the country.
Radio Free Afghanistan's Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report