ISTANBUL- The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan said he hopes increased troop levels will weaken the Taliban enough for its leaders to accept a peace deal.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal told the Financial Times in an interview published on Monday that there had been enough fighting and held out the possibility the Taliban could eventually 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.
He was speaking ahead of a conference in London expected to agree a framework for the Afghan government to begin taking charge of security in line with a 2011 timetable set by President Barack Obama to start drawing down U.S. troops.
Obama is sending an extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan to try to break a military stalemate there and has held out the possibility of reintegrating former Taliban fighters.
Early last year he appeared to rule out any possibility of talks with leaders of the insurgency, saying that the uncompromising core of the Taliban must be defeated.
But in an interview with The Times newspaper, U.S. General David 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.
Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said, however, that many observers believed this would take time and that the fighting would get harder before the situation improved.
THIRSTY FOR PEACE
In the latest of a series of meetings meant to ease distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Turkey hosted President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari for talks expected to focus on plans to reach out to Taliban insurgents.
Masood Khalili, Afghanistan's ambassador to Turkey, told Turkish state-run news agency 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.
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.
A Turkish official cautioned however against expecting anything to come out publicly on reconciliation.
EU foreign ministers in Brussels were also 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 galvanising 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 neighbours and near-neighbours -- 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.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Luke Baker in Brussels; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Jon Hemming)