Pakistan's prime minister will travel to Qatar next week to talk with officials from the Gulf Arab state on the Afghan reconciliation process, a senior government official said on Saturday.

The Afghan Taliban announced last month it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting the group may be willing to engage in negotiations that would likely give it government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.

Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and is believed to have influence over militant groups which have been fighting to topple President Hamid Karzai's government.

Ties between Islamabad and Kabul have been strained in recent months but Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said after a visit to Afghanistan last week that ill will had eased considerably between the two neighbours.

Pakistan has not been playing a substantial role in the nascent Afghan peace process, she said, but would encourage militant groups like the Haqqani network or the Taliban to lay down their weapons if asked by Kabul.

While it is not specifically on the agenda, Afghanistan will be discussed, including briefings from the Qatari leadership on efforts being made for the peace process, the Taliban office, said the Pakistan government official.

Khar is expected to accompany Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on the February 6-8 Qatar trip.

(Reporting by Qasim Nauman, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)