The meeting comes as Afghanistan's battlefield losses are mounting and entire swaths of the country that cost hundreds of U.S.-led coalition and Afghan military lives to secure slip back into Taliban hands. Taliban representatives have not been invited to the talks, vowing to talk only to the U.S. and not to the government in Kabul.
As the gathering got under way, host Pakistan — seen as key to bringing the warring Taliban factions to the table — cautioned of the difficulties ahead.
Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, warned against prematurely deciding which Taliban factions are ready to talk, urging instead "confidence building" measures to get even the recalcitrant Taliban to the negotiating table.
But analysts and participants alike say that while there are four countries talking, much of the hope for progress toward peace rests with Pakistan, which is accused of harboring some of the fiercest factions of the Taliban, including the Haqqani group, a U.S.-declared terrorist organization. Pakistan says its influence over the Taliban is overrated.
"Even at the best of times they (Taliban) didn't listen to us," Aziz told The Associated Press earlier. "Look at Bamiyan," he said, referring to the Taliban's destruction in the summer of 2001 of some of the world's most precious statues of Buddha. The Taliban blew up the statues, ignoring the roars of dissent, including from Pakistan.
Aziz refused to say whether Pakistan has a list of Taliban representatives prepared to enter into peace negotiations. The existence of such a list was announced Sunday by Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
At the start of Monday's conference, Aziz urged that participants avoid the media and work toward finding ways to get all the Taliban to talk peace. He said the Islamabad gathering needs to define the "overall direction of the reconciliation process" and goals that would create a "conducive environment for holding direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban groups."
Meanwhile, a breakaway Taliban group said Monday it was ready for talks. The faction, which emerged following the revelation last year that the Taliban leader and founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had died two years ago, is believed to be relatively small and its absence from the battlefield is unlikely to be a game changer.
Imtiaz Gul, whose Center for Research and Security Studies has delved deeply into the Afghan conflict and Pakistan's decades-old involvement, says Pakistan has significant leverage with the Taliban, led by Omar's replacement Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Militants in both countries are allied, and getting rid of the Haqqanis, for example, could unleash a violent backlash inside Pakistan where the army has been fighting for several years to defeat a coalition of militant groups largely based in its border areas with Afghanistan, Gul said.
That battle has been brutal with thousands of Pakistani soldiers killed and wounded and thousands more Pakistani civilians killed in deadly retaliatory suicide attacks by the militants.
Gul said last month's trip by Pakistan's army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, who travelled to Afghanistan unaccompanied by the country's powerful ISI intelligence agency, long considered the force behind the Taliban, was a signal the military was ready to move away from past practices and center future policy decisions only at the army headquarters.
Changes won't come quickly, says Gul, "but important for us is to turn the page (from supporting militants) and I think Gen. Raheel Sharif has turned that page."
Though the Taliban were not invited to Monday's talks, a senior Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing exposure and capture, told the AP that two Taliban delegates, currently headquartered in Qatar, will meet "soon" with China's representatives. The meeting, which will also include Pakistan, is to be held in Islamabad, said the official.