Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan
President since 2004, Karzai has said that if he is re-elected he will invite the Taliban and other militants to a grand tribal council for peace negotiations, on condition that they lay down their weapons.
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan presidential candidate
Currently Karzai's main competitor in the presidential elections, Abdullah has made rapid gains in the polls since May. Critics have accused him of not committing to any clear policy, and of having allowed corruption to thrive during his term as foreign minister from 2001 to 2006.
Ashraf Ghani, Afghan presidential candidate
Currently third in the polls, Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank executive, has emphasised the importance of building the economy and creating employment opportunities. Karzai has offered him a power-sharing deal, but he says "people want change".
Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan
A key architect of Barack Obama's plans to bolster US forces in Afghanistan and increase aid to Pakistan, Holbrooke has twice served as assistant secretary of state.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, Taliban leader
The elusive Mullah Omar has been in hiding for eight years, and is believed to be in the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He has said that he will not participate in peace talks with the government until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary general
The new head of Nato has called for more troops in Afghanistan, attributing recent progress in the south to a surge in deployments. He has also endorsed peace talks between the Afghan government and various groups, to stop the mounting violence.
General Sir David Richards, UK chief of general staff (from 28 August)
Richards said this past week that the process of nation-building in Afghanistan could take as long as 30 to 40 years, and he added: "There is absolutely no chance of Nato pulling out." From 2006 to 2008, he was commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder/leader of Hezb-e-Islami militant group
Former anti-Soviet fighter, wanted by US for terrorist actions with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Hamid Karzai has offered talks, hinting at a government position.
Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan
Under US pressure over al-Qaeda and Taliban militants hiding in his country's tribal areas, Zardari said in January that Pakistan and Afghanistan need support from allies to battle insurgents, not more troops. But Islamabad has been accused of not doing enough in the past.
US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of Isaf and US forces in Afghanistan
Appointed in June this year, McChrystal believes that the situation in Afghanistan must be turned around within 18 to 24 months, and that more money and fewer civilian deaths are key. He was previously commander of a secretive special force in Iraq.