The US will engage in direct negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar next week, aimed at achieving peace in Afghanistan, senior White House officials have said.
Tuesday's announcement came as the Taliban opened a political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, to help start talks on ending the 12-year-old conflict, saying it wanted a political solution that would bring about a just government and end foreign occupation.
A US official said American and Taliban envoys would meet in Doha "in a couple of days", after which the Taliban would meet a "High Peace Council" set up by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to conduct the negotiations.
|Mohammad Sohail Shaheen said the attacks will continue
In opening its mission in Doha, the Taliban did not explicitly renounce al-Qaeda but it did pledge not to allow attacks to be launched from Afghan soil.
Prior to September 11, 2001, and the US intervention, al-Qaeda had bases in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Later on Tuesday, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokesperson, said that an eventual disavowal of al-Qaeda ties by the Taliban was only an "end goal of the process".
She said James Dobbins, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, would leave Washington later on Tuesday bound for Doha to lead the US teams.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mohammad Sohail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman and a member of the Doha political office, said the armed group will continue to attack US targets in Afghanistan, but will simultaneously seek to end the conflict by pursuing peace talks.
He said there was no ceasefire with the US and its allies and that the Taliban "simultaneously follows political and military options".
"There is no ceasefire [with the US] now. They are attacking us and we are attacking them," Shaheen said.
Late on Tuesday, fighters attacked the Bagram air base, west of Kabul, killing four American soldiers.
US President Barack Obama said the opening of the Taliban office was an important first step towards reconciliation between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government.
He cautioned, however, that the process would be lengthy and insisted that the Taliban break ties with al-Qaeda and end violence.
The divided Afghan insurgency could complicate talks, amid US doubts as to whether the powerful "Haqqani network" of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former CIA asset turned al-Qaeda ally, was ready to embrace negotiation.
US officials said the Taliban envoys in Doha had been authorised to talk by Mullah Omar, the main Taliban figurehead, and that Haqqani's group is "a fully subordinate part of the overall insurgency".
But General Joseph Dunford, the US commander in Afghanistan, said he was sceptical the Haqqanis would back a peace deal.
|Jane Ferguson reports on the formal handover
Separately, Karzai confirmed that he had ordered government envoys to travel to Qatar to try to open negotiations.
He pledged that Afghan forces were ready to take on opposition fighters, but the lingering threat was underlined when a bomb targeting a legislator killed three people just before a ceremony on Tuesday in Kabul to mark the beginning of the final phase of security transition from the US-led coalition.
Separately, a senior Afghan government representative said the progress was made after secret discussions with the Taliban.
"Peace talks will certainly take place between the Taliban and the High Peace Council," the official said.
The Taliban has until now said it would not countenance peace talks with the Karzai government, which it calls a "stooge" of the US and other Western nations.
But in what could anger the Afghan government, the white Taliban flag was visible at Shaheen's side during Tuesday's ceremony in Doha, and a large sign behind him proclaimed the office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", the name the Taliban used during their brief national rule in the 1990s.
The events may have been timed to coincide with the security ceremony in Kabul, which was attended by Karzai.
Concern in Kabul
The turnover of the last districts from NATO to Afghan control included areas in the south and east where the Taliban are at their strongest.
Doubts remain over the ability of Afghan forces to maintain security, and the 98,000 foreign troops still in Afghanistan will retain an important function in training, logistics, air support and in combat emergencies.
|From the perspective of one neighbourhood in Herat
US officials said the forthcoming meeting in Doha between US officials and Taliban representatives would amount to "an exchange of agendas", followed by another within about two weeks.
However, Al Jazeera's Jane Ferguson, reporting from Kabul, said that many people were saying they would resist what they percieved as the rise in power of the Taliban.
"The people here in Kabul are extremely concerned about the developments in Doha today," she said.
"What people here are asking is: What about the other objectives that were sold to Afghans in 2001 such as women's rights, universal human rights, democracy? Are those objectives to be sacrificed for the sake of a quick American withdrawal?
"If the Taliban were to have widespread political influence here, does that mean a lot of the things that the Americans have worked for over the past 12 years could be lost?"