ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Monday western allies backed his plans to reconcile with Taliban fighters and U.S. generals said leaders of the insurgency eventually could be brought into talks.
General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said the fighting would get harder before the situation improved, as the United States sends an extra 30,000 troops to break a stalemate in Afghanistan.
But both he and General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, held out the possibility of eventual talks with the Taliban leadership to end a war which is now into its ninth year.
While Karzai was working on a formal reintegration program for Taliban fighters -- expected to win backing at an international conference in London on Thursday -- talks could eventually be held with their leaders, Petraeus said.
"The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility," he told The Times newspaper.
McChrystal told the Financial Times he hoped increased troop levels would weaken the Taliban enough for its leaders to accept a peace deal and held out the possibility the Taliban eventually could help run the country.
"It's not my job to extend olive branches, but it is my job to help set conditions where people in the right positions can have options on the way forward," he said.
"I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," he said when asked whether he would be content to see Taliban leaders in a future Afghan government.
The conference in London on Thursday is expected to agree a framework for the Afghan government to begin taking charge of security, in line with a timetable set by President Barack Obama to start drawing down U.S. troops in 2011.
Karzai, speaking after meeting Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Istanbul, said Afghanistan had the backing of its allies, including the United States and Europe, for renewed efforts at reconciliation.
Attempts to win over Taliban fighters have met with only limited success in the past, but Karzai is hoping international funding will underpin a more formal reconciliation program.
The program, combined with extra troops, is meant to weaken the insurgency ahead of any eventual talks with its leaders.
Asked whether Pakistan was trying to persuade the Afghan Taliban to enter some kind of peace negotiations, Zardari said: "We have to talk about peace. If there are any people who are reconcilable, democracy always welcomes them back."
The Istanbul meeting was the latest in a series organized by Turkey to ease distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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.
In a sign of the potential significance of the meeting, the talks were being attended by military and intelligence officials from both countries, including the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
EU foreign ministers in Brussels also were meeting on Monday to coordinate their plans for Afghanistan, which British Foreign Secretary said had reached a decisive moment.
"The combination of a new Afghan government and a new focus of the international military and civilian efforts means that this is going to be a decisive period in the Afghan campaign.
"There's a new government in Kabul, there's a new military strategy, there's a new civilian surge ... it's very important that we get the political strategy right at this time."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the conference in London late last year in the hope of galvanizing international efforts to secure Afghanistan. It is expected to be attended by ministers from some 60 countries.
On Tuesday, Turkey is hosting a meeting of Afghanistan's neighbors and near-neighbors -- which will include Miliband as well as ministers from China and Iran -- to seek a common approach to the conflict ahead of the London talks.