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US, Taliban to meet in Qatar for 'key milestone' toward ending Afghanistan war

U.S. and Taliban representatives will meet soon for the first time to begin what are expected to be long and complex negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the war in Afghanistan, senior Obama administration officials said Tuesday.

The officials told NBC News that the meeting will take place in the next several days in the Qatari capital of Doha. The Taliban will open an office there for the purpose of negotiating directly with the Afghan government, the officials said. A precise date was not announced.

"This is a key milestone on the way to the complete transition of responsibility for security to Afghans by the end of next year," a senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said via conference call after the announcement was made.

However, a senior Taliban official said "formal talks" would not begin immediately and any negotiations would be conditional on the release of Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay.

The talks, which follow numerous failed attempts to start peace negotiations, would represent the first time the U.S. and Taliban militants have met to discuss ending the war since the Afghanistan conflict started in 2001.

The negotiating conditions require the Taliban to break their ties with al Qaeda, end the violence and accept the Afghan constitution, especially the protections for women and minorities, the officials said.

But because of deep distrust between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the process will be “complex, long and messy,” one official said. The officials emphasized that expectations were low, but said the opening of Doha office was a crucial step for Afghanistan.

"We have long said that this conflict will likely not be won on the battlefield, and that is why we support the opening of this office," said one senior administration official.

As for the American government's role in the talks, the United States "will have a role in direct talks, but this is a negotiation that will have to be led by Afghans," another said.

According to a State Department spokesperson, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador James Dobbins will meet on the U.S.'s behalf with the Taliban in the coming days. He departs Tuesday for Ankara, Turkey, and will then travel to Doha before going to Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

His trip will primarily be focused on reconciliation, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

"Our goal in Afghanistan continues to be to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida, to ensure that the country can never again be a safe haven for terrorists. We're doing both at the same time, talking and winding down our fighting in the country," Psaki said.

Secretary of State John Kerry praised the decision to hold talks.

"We're very pleased with what has taken place," he said.

The disclosure came on the same day that international forces, led by the United States, handed over control for security of the entire country to Afghan security forces — a milestone after almost 12 years of war. Most foreign combat troops will leave the country by the end of 2014.

Obama administration officials also told NBC News that the U.S. is pursuing a prisoner exchange with the Taliban to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held for several years by the Haqqani network, considered a dangerous element of the Taliban.

The talks follow discussions held between Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai during a January visit to Washington, D.C., the officials said.

"This is a new development, a potentially significant development," said one official. "But peace is not at hand."

A senior Taliban official said they were “already in contact with the U.S., but to call it talks is premature.”

“For talks to begin, first the U.S. will have to release five Afghan Taliban commanders [held in Guantanamo Bay] and bring them to Qatar,” he said. “Then we can sit and start negotiations on how to set the agenda for formal talks."

“As of now, we are not going in to formal talks with the U.S. immediately,” he added.

The Taliban official said releasing the detained commanders would be a “first step” in restoring trust.

“Amir ul Momineen Mullah Omar [the Taliban’s leader] is not desperate for talks with the U.S. as the Afghan Taliban are victorious in the battlefield,” he said, adding that there would have to be “equal gains” from any talks that did take place.

Pakistan said it had played a “constructive and positive role” in arranging what it described as “important milestone in support of a peace process.”

"Pakistan welcomes the announcement of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha for the purpose of bringing peace to Afghanistan and the region,” a Pakistan foreign office spokesman said in a statement. “Pakistan also welcomes the start of direct peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Pakistan has long called for a peaceful and negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict.”

NBC News' Fakhar ur Rehman, Elizabeth Chuck and Ian Johnston contributed to this report.