Afghan President Hamid Karzai 'plans talks with Taliban'

President Hamid Karzai (27 January)
Image caption President Karzai was angered by the Qatar process

The Afghan government is planning to meet the Taliban in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to jump-start peace talks, the BBC has learned.

The landmark meeting will come in the coming weeks, before the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar, according to Western and Afghan officials.

The Taliban have refused previously to recognise the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Senior officials in Kabul say the Taliban have agreed to the meeting.

The militant group, contacted by the BBC, refused to comment on the move.

The Taliban have so far insisted they would only talk to the US and other allies of the Kabul government.

A senior Afghan government official told the BBC: "Even if the Taliban office is established in Qatar, we will obviously pursue other efforts in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey."

He continued: "Saudi Arabia has played an important role in the past. We value that and look forward to continued support and contact with Saudi Arabia in continuing the peace process."

President Karzai was angered by US and Qatari efforts to kick-start the peace process without consulting his government fully.

In December, he recalled the Afghan ambassador in Doha. A delegation from Qatar is expected to arrive in Kabul shortly in an attempt to mend fences.

Image caption US aid worker Warren Weinstein was abducted in Lahore last year

Prisoner exchange?

As reported by the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper, a number of Taliban officials have already arrived in Qatar.

The delegation includes Sher Mohammad Stanakzai, the Taliban's former deputy foreign minister and Shabudin Dilawari, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Tayeb Agha, a close aide of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

However, details for the establishment of a permanent office have still to be finalised.

Michael Semple, a former EU envoy to Kabul who was expelled in 2007 for talking to the Taliban, told BBC radio that the Taliban were "confused by the lack of coherence" between the Afghan government and the international community.

"There's a risk that the Taliban sit there and think there's some kind of divide-and-rule going on from the international side... and that actually no negotiated deal is possible and that they are far better off maintaining the coherence of their leadership which at the moment, frankly, looks rather more coherent and united than anything on either the Afghan government or international side," he said.

There are worries that the Taliban are using the political office to raise funds, and as a ploy to buy time before foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

There is also concern in the presidential palace in Kabul that those negotiations will be primarily focused on an exchange of prisoners between the US and the Taliban.

Five senior insurgents are being held at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.

America wants the return of three of its citizens held by the Taliban and its affiliates.

They include a captured soldier, Specialist Bowe Bergdahl, and kidnapped US aid worker Warren Weinstein.

All are being held in the town of Miranshah in the troubled Pakistani province of North Waziristan.

Meanwhile, a senior member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council remains in the hands of Taliban fighters in Nuristan, in the remote east of Afghanistan.

Shafiullah Shafi is considered an influential tribal elder - crucial in mediating between local Taliban commanders and fighters.

Shuttle diplomacy

Image caption Afghan troops are gradually taking over security duties as foreign forces prepare to leave

There are divisions within the Taliban leadership, with one faction continuing to insist that all foreign troops must leave before any talks take place.

Messages have been sent to the Taliban commanders from the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council, warning against dissent.

Separately, President Karzai's government is attempting to improve bilateral relations with neighbouring Pakistan.

Three of the main insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan are based in Pakistan. Islamabad's support will be vital in any credible peace process.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, will visit Kabul soon.

The Afghan government is hopeful that Pakistan will hand over two Taliban leaders from the east of the country, Mawli Kabir and Mawli Sadrazam, as a show of Pakistan's support for the peace process.

The government also wants Pakistan to facilitate direct access to the Quetta Shura.

America's special envoy to region, Marc Grossman, has been shuttling between key countries in the region.

In Kabul, he said the Taliban must renounce support for international terrorist groups and be prepared to engage with the government if peace talks were to get under way.

Western diplomats in Kabul have warned though that any eventual political settlement is years away, and that there is little prospect that fighting, which has claimed thousands of Afghan and foreign lives, will end anytime soon.

Follow Quentin Sommerville on Twitter @mrsommerville

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