(Reuters) - Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool will visit Qatar to meet government officials to discuss reconciliation with the Taliban, a ministry spokesman said on Saturday, a sign the nascent peace process could gain momentum.
Rasool is scheduled to leave for Qatar in under ten days, Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai told Reuters.
The Afghan Taliban announced in January it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting the group may be willing to engage in negotiations that would be likely to give it Afghan government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.
Initially the Kabul government was cool to the idea of the Taliban holding talks with U.S. officials in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.
President Hamid Karzai withdrew his ambassador to Doha, apparently angry he had not been properly consulted or worried his government could be excluded from talks.
An Afghan government official described Rasool's visit as a "very important step" and that the Afghan ambassador would soon return to Qatar.
Afghan officials have since pledged support for the Qatar reconciliation efforts, but also want Saudi Arabia and Turkey to facilitate talks to make the process more comprehensive.
The Afghan government has had some contact with the Taliban, who have made a strong comeback after being toppled by a U.S. invasion in 2001, but there are no signs that fully-fledged peace talks will happen soon.
U.S. diplomats have also been seeking to broaden exploratory talks that began clandestinely in Germany in late 2010 after the Taliban offered to open a representative office in Qatar.
The United States hopes to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table so Afghanistan can be stabilized before foreign combat troops head home at the end of 2014.
In another signal of possible progress, an Afghan government delegation visited the U.S. Guantanamo Bay military prison this week to secure approval from five Taliban detainees who may soon be moved to Qatar.
The delegation, which visited the top-security detention centre in Cuba on Monday, included Ibrahim Spinzada, a senior foreign policy aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sources familiar with the subject said.
Government sources in Kabul said Spinzada and Shahida Abdali, a senior Afghan security official, visited the United States this week. The White House said the two officials were in Washington briefly but both the White House and the Pentagon declined to comment on the Guantanamo visit.
Karzai's government has demanded the five former senior members of the Taliban government, held at Guantanamo Bay for a decade, give their consent before they are transferred to the small country where they would under Qatar's custody.
The transfer would be one of a series of good-faith measures that, if U.S. diplomats can surmount remaining hurdles, would set in motion the first substantial political negotiations on the conflict in Afghanistan since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion.
A year after it was unveiled, the Obama administration's peace initiative may soon offer the United States an opportunity to broker an end to a conflict that began as the response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The war has dragged on for a decade at huge financial and human cost.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in WASHINGTON; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)
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