Kabul: Afghan efforts to broker peace with the Taliban enter a new phase this week with the first scheduled visit of envoys to Islamabad, part of a growing recognition that the process hinges on Pakistan.
Afghanistan's ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani will take a group from President Hamid Karzai's High Council for Peace to neighbouring Pakistan on Tuesday for talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Pakistan is increasingly seen as key to Afghan stability, despite historic tensions between the two countries linked to Pakistan's desire to extend its sphere of influence in the region.
Key Taliban figures are believed to be hiding out in Pakistan's wild border regions, while experts say agents from its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have protected or even controlled the militants for years.
Islamabad has said it stands ready to facilitate dialogue between Afghanistan and the Taliban.
"There will be talks with all stakeholders about bringing peace to Afghanistan," Rabbani's deputy Ataullah Ludin told AFP, speaking about the three-day visit.
"This trip is the beginning. We cannot talk about the result now, however, we are optimistic for all peace efforts."
The move comes at the start of a crucial year for Afghanistan -- limited international troop withdrawals are expected to start in July before a planned handover of responsibility for security to Afghan troops in 2014.
But some international diplomats and commanders enter 2011 convinced that the plan can only succeed if there are meaningful talks with the Taliban, and the role of Pakistan is seen as crucial.
Taliban leaders fled to Pakistan's border regions after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.
Most of the Taliban's top command, including supreme leader Mullah Omar, are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, mostly in the southwestern city of Quetta.
The militia is "intellectually and politically independent but physically under the control of Pakistan", said Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar on Afghanistan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
According to Mullah Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban mediator in Kabul, "at least 29 important Taliban leaders have been arrested by the ISI" since 2001.
Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been tense, but the intensity of the rhetoric between them has eased since Zardari took over from Pervez Musharraf in 2008.