Afghanistan'sTaliban has confirmed it has reached an "initial agreement" with the United States to open a contact office in Qatar.
"We are now ready to open a political office outside the country [Afghanistan] along with our strong presence inside the country for negotiations with the international community," a Pashto-language statement issued to journalists said on January 3. "In this regard, we have reached an agreement with Qatar and other relevant sides."
The statement did not say when a Taliban office would open, nor did it specifically indicate a willingness to negotiate with the Afghan government.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland would not confirm that an agreement had been reached but indicated that the United States was willing to "play a role:"
"We are not aware of any formal decision [or] of any formal announcement, but we are prepared to support a process that the Afghans support," she said. "And with regard to any office, it would be a question for the host country, the Afghans, and the Afghan Taliban to agree on."
An official Taliban office is seen by Western and Afghan officials as key to moving forward with efforts to reach a negotiated end to a decade of war in Afghanistan.
Move Is 'A Good Omen'
The decision was welcomed by Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, head of the foreign relations department at Afghanistan's High Peace Council.
"There are no differences of opinion over establishing a [Taliban] office in Qatar so that they have a known address," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "[And this will help] in moving the negotiations forward with them."
In Kabul, Afghan analyst Wahid Mozhdah said the move is a good omen.
Mozhdah, a former Taliban diplomat, indicated that several Taliban officials, including former deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai and Tayyab Agha, a key political advisor to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, are already in Qatar to oversee the opening of the office.
"I think this is a good step because one of the major problems so far was that the Taliban did not had an address where they can be contacted and from where they can issue their statements and let their positions be known," he said. "It will pave the way for beginning the peace talks."
But Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, maintained that it would be "very dangerous to read [the Taliban announcement] as a breakthrough in the peace process."
"Bringing the Taliban to the table is, to some extent, an accomplishment, but only if the Taliban feels that it is forced to negotiate on terms that the U.S. finds favorable," he said.
"Now that the U.S. has unambiguously said it's leaving in 2014, the Taliban has almost every possible reason to wait out the United States, and certainly it has very little reason to negotiate on favorable terms as it watches the situation in Pakistan deteriorate and there's less and less prospect that its sanctuaries inside Pakistan are going to be threatened."
Kabul last month recalled its ambassador to Qatar for consultations over reports that the Taliban was planning to open an office in the Gulf state.
Taliban Still Seeking Theocracy
However, President Hamid Karzai has since indicated he would accept the plan.
"The Afghan government had earlier framed a 10-point program. It said that if they [the Taliban] want to open an office in Qatar, we will not oppose it," Karzai's spokesman Hamid Elmi, told RFE/RL on January 3.
"We wanted to have this office in Saudi Arabia or Turkey. But if the Taliban and the Americans have agreed to open it somewhere else in another Islamic country, we will cooperate with them."
The Taliban first emerged in 1994 in southern Afghanistan and controlled most of Afghanistan before the demise of their regime in late 2001.
They have been fighting Karzai's Western-backed government and NATO-led troops over the past decade.
The hard-line Islamist movement said on January 3 that it would not drop its goal of establishing a theocratic government.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the Taliban] has always said that the occupation must end. And Afghans should be allowed to form an Islamic government that would not harm anybody," the Taliban statement said.
Karzai's spokesman also confirmed to RFE/RL that a delegation representing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who leads the insurgent group Hizb-e Islami, met with Karzai and foreign diplomats in Kabul this week to "gauge [the group's] prospects of participating in the peace process."
Hizb-e Islami is Afghanistan's second largest militant group. It fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and is now fighting NATO-led international forces.
RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Majeed Babar and RFE/RL Washington correspondent Richard Solash contributed to this report; with additional agency reporting