Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Sept 27, 2011 photo, members of the Khan family sit in a destroyed cinema razed by the Taliban which serves as the family's home in the center of Kabul, Afghanistan.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban announced Tuesday that they will open an office in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar to hold talks with the United States, an unprecedented step toward a peace process that might lead to a winding down of the 10-year war in Afghanistan.

Although U.S. and Taliban representatives have met secretly several times over the past year in Europe and the Persian Gulf, this is the first time the Islamist insurgent group has publicly expressed willingness for substantive negotiations.

In recent months, the idea of a Taliban political office in the Qatari capital of Doha has become a central element in U.S. efforts to draw the insurgents into such talks. The idea is to give the Taliban more legitimacy to negotiate in a location that presumably would at least partly shield them from Pakistani pressure.

Asked about the Taliban announcement, White House spokesman Jay Carney welcomed "any step ... of the Afghan-led process toward reconciliation." He noted that "peace cannot come to Afghanistan without a political settlement."

But negotiations could falter if they do not sufficiently involve President Hamid Karzai's government, which the Taliban have dismissed as a puppet regime. Karzai's inner circle derailed last year's behind-the-scenes talks, and the Afghan leader only grudgingly agreed to the idea of the Taliban's setting up a liaison office in Qatar.

Another potential spoiler is Pakistan, which houses most of the Taliban leadership as well as the Haqqani network, which carries out major attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul.