The Obama administration says Pakistan should support Afghanistan's peace talks with the Taliban and is pressing Pakistan to take stronger military action against militant groups sheltering within its borders.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Pakistan's role in the nine-year Afghan conflict is a key point in high-level U.S-Pakistani discussions this week, which began Wednesday at the State Department and Pentagon.
"We have assured Pakistan that it has an appropriate role to play in resolving the situation in Afghanistan," Crowley told reporters.
"We do not want to see efforts by any entity to, you know, prevent political reconciliation," he added, referring to efforts to get the Taliban to accept the legitimacy of the Karzai government in Kabul and the Afghan constitution in exchange for amnesty and a political role.
"This is a fundamental part of our strategy, and Pakistan does have a legitimate role to play in supporting this process," Crowley said.
He said peace talks with the Taliban are in an early stage but are picking up speed. No American officials are directly involved in preliminary talks, he said, although the U.S.-led NATO coalition there has granted Taliban leaders safe passage to talks in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan does have a legitimate role to play in supporting this process," Crowley said. "But, you know, the broader process of reconciliation is an Afghan-led process. But we do see a role for Pakistan."
Crowley also said the administration does not rule out trying to persuade Iran to help promote a political solution with the Taliban. Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan.
The Taliban have denied they are in talks with the Afghan government and have vowed to fight until the Americans leave.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, said Wednesday that it's not yet clear whether the preliminary talks said to be under way between the Afghan government and some Taliban representatives are based on terms that would require Taliban acceptance of the current Afghan political system.
Alternatively, it is possible, he said, that the two sides are discussing a broader negotiation that would include such basic issues as the nature of the government and the constitution.
"It isn't clear whether very senior people from the Taliban who are authorized to negotiate are involved," he said in a telephone interview.
Khalilzad said it appears unlikely that the Taliban would be willing to engage in reconciliation talks that would require them to accept the Afghan government system and renounce al-Qaida.
"The balance on the ground, frankly, at this point does not indicate to me that it is conducive to reconciliation," he said. "That reconciliation would happen when it looks like the insurgency is going to lose and (it decides) to make a deal now because it's going to get worse" for them.
Asked whether the U.S. saw evidence that Pakistan has sought to impede the peace process, Crowley said, "I wouldn't point to anything now." He added, however, "We are talking to Pakistan. We'll discuss this as a dimension of our strategic dialogue this week."
The White House said Wednesday that President Barack Obama will travel to Pakistan next year in his first visit to the country since taking office. The announcement came after Obama convened a monthly national security meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan where security cooperation with the key U.S. ally was discussed.
The White House said the president also met with a Pakistani delegation headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and told them he would not be making a stop in their country during his trip to Asia next month, as has been rumored.
In an appearance at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday evening, Qureshi said his country wants the U.S. to open wider its markets to Pakistani goods and services and to negotiate a free trade agreement.
"We need trade, not just aid," he said, appearing alongside Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Qureshi said his country wants a partnership with, not a dependency upon, the United States.
Wednesday's peace talks in Washington included a session at the Pentagon between Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the Pakistan army, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Michele Flournoy, the defense undersecretary for policy.
Gates told Kayani the U.S. wants a longer-term, strategic partnership with Pakistan and wants to elevate the relationship "beyond the day-to-day ups and downs that it has historically experienced," according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
Gates repeated an apology for last month's killing of three Pakistani guards near the Afghan border by a NATO helicopter _ the incident that prompted Islamabad to temporarily close one of its border crossings to NATO supply convoys. Gates told Kayani the shooting of the Frontier Corps troops was unintentional, Morrell said.
Stephanie Sanok, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone interview that Islamabad is interested in playing a key role in postwar Afghanistan.
"I think behind the scenes they are absolutely wanting to be part of any kind of reconciliation or reintegration discussions," she said. "Pakistan has an interest in playing a key role in Afghanistan, particularly after the U.S. forces withdraw, and so they are going to want to establish early and often their influence over what goes on in Kabul and elsewhere in that country."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Anne Gearan and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.