Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (Photo: Reuters)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was set to hold discussions in Qatar Sunday about the proposed opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state as a prelude to possible talks on ending more than a decade of war.
Karzai previously opposed such a Qatar venue since he feared that his government would be frozen out of any peace negotiations involving the Islamic extremists and the United States.
The militants refuse to have direct contact with the Afghan president, saying he is a puppet of the United States, which supported his rise to power after the military operation to oust the Taliban from Kabul in 2001.
But with US-led NATO combat troops due to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Karzai agreed to the proposed Taliban office in Doha and is expected to raise the plan in talks with the Emir of Qatar on Sunday.
Any future peace talks still face numerous hurdles before they begin, including confusion over who would represent the Taliban and Karzai's insistence that his appointees should be at the centre of negotiations.
"We will discuss the peace process, of course, and the opening of an office for the Taliban in Qatar," presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told AFP before Karzai left Kabul on Saturday.
"If we want to have talks to bring peace to Afghanistan, the main side must be the Afghan government's representatives -- the High Peace Council, which has members from all the country's ethnic and political backgrounds," Faizi added.
Negotiating with the hardline Taliban regime that harboured Al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks was for many years anathema to countries in the UN-backed coalition against the militants.
But the search for a political settlement became a priority as the insurgency raged on, with Taliban leaders able to fuel violence from safe havens across the border in Pakistan.
Kabul has repeatedly stressed that it will only start talks if the militants break all links with Al-Qaeda and give up violence, and Faizi said that any Taliban office in Qatar must be subject to strict conditions.
"It can only be an address where the armed opposition sit and talk to the Afghanistan government," he said. "This office cannot be used for any other purposes." The United Nations this week welcomed news that Karzai would visit Qatar, and issued another call for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
"You are Afghans, you care, I assume, about your country, you care about (a) peaceful stable future of the country," Jan Kubis, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, said. But a Qatar office could mean little if the Taliban continue to refuse to negotiate with Karzai or the government-appointed High Peace Council.
"The opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is not related to Karzai, it is a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP. "Our representatives who are already in Qatar won't see or talk to him."
The Islamist militants broke off tentative contacts with the US in Qatar a year ago after the failure of attempts to agree on a prisoner exchange as a confidence-building measure. Neighbouring Pakistan, which backed the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule over Afghanistan, is seen as key to any workable peace deal and has expressed support for the Taliban office in Doha.
But cross-border relations have worsened sharply in recent weeks, with Kabul accusing Islamabad of wrecking efforts to end the bloody 11-year insurgency. A statement from Karzai's office said he was accompanied on the two-day state visit by Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and Salahuddin Rabbani, chairman of the High Peace Council.