KABUL - In their first public gesture toward peace talks with the United States, the Afghan Taliban are planning to open a political office in the Gulf country of Qatar, a move seen as would help reach an end to the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
"We are right now ready ... to have a political office overseas, in order to have an understanding with the international (community)," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement cited by Reuters.
"In this regard we have reached an initial understanding with Qatar and relevant sites."
Opening an overseas Taliban office is seen by the West as a crucial step to moving forward toward reaching a negotiated end to a decade of US-led war in Afghanistan.
"We're now prepared, while having a strong presence inside (Afghanistan), to have a political office outside (Afghanistan) for negotiations," the statement said.
The West-backed Afghan government had pushed for an office in Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
But in late December, Kabul said it would accept a Taliban liaison office in Qatar, if its officials retained control of the negotiating process.
The move follows a series of failed efforts toward talks by Afghans and their Western allies, some of them with interlocutors who turned out to be frauds.
These culminated in the September 2011 killing of President Hamid Karzai's top peace envoy, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a man accepted as a Taliban representative, which appeared to temporarily destroy the president's appetite for negotiations.
The Taliban statement also dismissed as untrue reports about talks that appeared in the "Western press," and specified that the office aimed to improve ties -- suggesting any further progress might be slow.
The Afghan group repeated calls for the US-led foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.
"The occupation of the country must be ended and Afghans must be allowed to create an Islamic government of their choice that be no harm to any one," the Taliban said.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, were ousted by the United States, which invaded Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Since then, Taliban fighters have engaged in protracted guerrilla warfare against the US-led foreign troops and the West-backed Hamid Karzai government.
Reports about a planned opening of a Taliban liaison office won plaudits from a senior member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, the body charged with seeking a negotiated end to the country's decade-long war.
"It is important for the Taliban to negotiate with the international community, especially with the U.S, and we welcome their decision to set up a political office," Arsala Rahmani, a top negotiator on the high peace council, told Reuters.
"It is a gesture of good faith."
The US, meanwhile, said it would support Afghan-led efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban, including opening a liaison office for the group."If this is part of an Afghan-led, Afghan-supported process and the Afghan government itself believes it can play a constructive role, and it is also supported by the host country, then we will play a role in that as well," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.