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Qatar aims for Afghan peace process by 2014

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* Says work afoot to open Taliban office in Doha

* U.S., Afghans speeding handover of combat operations

By Regan Doherty

DOHA, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Qatar aims to see a peace process in Afghanistan by the time NATO combat operations end in 2014, Qatar's prime minister said on Tuesday as the Afghan Taliban movement prepared to open an office in the Qatari capital.

With the focus in Afghanistan shifting from a military push by NATO troops to potential talks on a peaceful settlement, U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan counterpart Hamed Karzai said last week they supported the opening of a Taliban office in Doha.

Obama is seeking an orderly way out of the war, which was triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by an al Qaeda network harboured by the Taliban.

The planned office is one of a series of gestures, including the possible transfer to Qatar of Taliban detainees from the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay prison, aimed at injecting momentum into the tentative reconciliation efforts.

Qatar, a long-time Gulf Arab peace broker in Afghanistan's war, said preparations were under way to open the Taliban's office as soon as possible to facilitate talks.

"The U.S. and others will withdraw in 2014, and I think it's an important core ideal that at least there is a political process in place, to have stability," Qatari premier Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference with his Libyan counterpart in Doha.

"Our aim is to help our Afghan brothers and find a solution accepted by all, or most, parties," he added.

A senior European diplomat told Reuters last week that several Taliban representatives were already on the ground in Doha but a formal office had not yet been opened.

DISCREET

Qatar, which hosts a number of Taliban officials, has played a central role in discreet discussions between U.S. officials and representatives of the shadowy militant group, which remains a formidable enemy in Afghanistan even as U.S. and NATO troops begin to withdraw.

Progress towards negotiations has not been smooth.

The Taliban announced a year ago that they would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting willingness to engage in talks that could bring them positions in the Afghan government or control over much of their historical southern heartland.

But in March they rowed back on the plan, citing what they said were inconsistencies in the U.S. negotiating position.

The reference to the office in the joint statement by Obama and Karzai suggested the idea had fresh momentum.

Meeting in Washington last week, the two leaders agreed to speed up a handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country.

Karzai and U.S. officials have said repeatedly that any peace process must be Afghan-led. The Afghan president has been angered in the past when he felt excluded by foreign efforts to set up some kind of negotiations. (Reporting By Regan Doherty; Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Tom Pfeiffer)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130115/qatar-aims-afghan-peace-process-2014