Senior international talks have begun in Turkey aimed at establishing a road map for Afghan security after the planned withdrawal of foreign troops from that country.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul is hosting the two-day affair, which kicked off with a trilateral meeting that included Gul and the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan in attendance.
On the first day, Gul, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were expected to reiterate the need for greater regional economic, political, and security cooperation.
The trilateral meeting sets the scene for the much broader Istanbul Conference, whose goal will be to establish a practical road map leading to 2014, the target date set for the withdrawal of foreign forces and the transfer of responsibility of security to the Afghan government.
In anticipation of the transition, representatives from 14 key regional partners will gather to reiterate their respect for Afghan sovereignty, endorse the Afghan-led reconciliation, and support the Afghan government in assuming responsibility for security.
The United States will accompany Pakistan, Iran, India, the Central Asian republics, and members of the United Nations and NATO at the meeting.
Karzai is expected to submit a draft declaration to the Istanbul Conference that outlines a new regional security and cooperation pact ensuring regional players commit to a stable and independent Afghanistan.
A regional arrangement comprising 14 regional players and establishing a Senior Officials Group to oversee a set of "confidence-building measures" and agree on an enforcement system is widely expected to emerge from the conference.
Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on October 31 that a regional cooperation pact is a key building block for the unfolding peace process.
"The Istanbul Conference is an opportunity for us in Afghanistan and the region to give real meaning to a slogan that has been repeated around for many, many years, which is that Afghanistan's peace and prosperity is connected to the peace and prosperity of the region and the region's to Afghanistan," Ludin said. "Terrorism and violence in Afghanistan affects the whole region. We need to come together with our neighbors to solve this problem."
The meeting in Istanbul comes as Afghanistan stands at a critical crossroads, when handover of security to Afghan forces begins and the country starts its transition to self-sufficiency and sustainable peace.
Karzai hopes that by 2014, Afghan police and soldiers will take the lead in protecting the country, allowing most international combat troops to go home with only a small contingent remaining to provide support and training to Afghan security forces.
The U.S. and its allies are currently building up the capacity of the Afghan Police and Afghan National Army, which recently assumed control of seven provinces in Afghanistan.
Wahid Muzhda, a former Taliban spokesman and ministry official in the Taliban goverment, said a genuine political settlement needs to precede the full transfer of security to Afghan forces.
"Without a regional political settlement the National Army in Afghanistan will collapse as soon as international forces withdraw," Muzhda said. "There has been no indication so far that the country can stand on its own feet come 2014."
"The only viable option is to continue peace talks," Muzhda added. "We have to gather all of the important parties and sit them down. But it will only be successful if the process is transparent and includes all parties that have a stake in a political settlement."
Political transition needs to be accompanied by sustainable growth in the Afghan economy, according to Hamid Farooq, professor of economics at Kabul University.
Farooq insisted that regional economic integration can support the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan: "For there to be a secure and prosperous Afghanistan, neighboring countries need to expand transport and infrastructure links and also sign new trade agreements," he said.
The Istanbul Conference will be followed up by a "Bonn+10" Conference in Germany in December, which should bring together 1,000 delegates from 90 countries, international organizations, and the United Nations.
The Bonn Conference will further discuss the handover of security to the Afghan government by 2014, international commitment to Afghanistan beyond the transfer, and national reconciliation and the integration of former Taliban fighters.