A rift within the top fugitive leaders of Afghanistan's hardline Taliban is seen as having far-reaching consequences for the movement's future and Kabul's efforts to conclude peace with the insurgents.
Amid conflicting reports, former Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir is missing after he was removed from his post as the leader of the Taliban Military Commission last week.
An Afghan intelligence official, requesting anonymity, told Radio Free Afghanistan this week that Zakir is being held by Al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants.
The Taliban rejected the claim. In a statement posted on their website on May 1, the insurgents said that Zakir "is free and is engaging in his activities."
But a source familiar with the struggle among the Taliban leaders told Gandhara that nothing has been heard from Zakir since his sacking. "Everyone in the Taliban leadership is waiting to hear from him but no one knows where he is and what he is up to."
The source said that Zakir has been absent from the meetings of the Taliban exiled leadership council for more than a year because of a power struggle with the de facto Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur. The council is called the Quetta Shura because it is seen as being based in and around Quetta, the capital of the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan near Afghanistan's border.
"The two men did not agree on the question of making peace with Kabul," the source said. "Zakir wanted to push for a military victory after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces towards the end of this year while Mansur favors the search for a settlement through negotiations."
Their struggle was complicated by the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Nobody in the Taliban leadership is believed to have met him for years but key decisions and statements are issued in his name. Sources agree that in Omar's absence Mansur can be considered the most powerful Taliban leader.
Zakir is the only figure seen as capable of challenging Mansur's dominance over the Quetta Shura.
He was a relatively junior official in the Taliban regime's hierarchy in the 1990s. But has grown is stature since being freed from Guantanamo in 2007. He had tricked his U.S. captors into believing that he was a farmer and posed no danger.
Zakir managed the Taliban response to the U.S. military surge in 2010 and is believed to be widely popular among Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan -- the birthplace and bastion of the Taliban movement.
Taliban observers now see him as capable of embarking on an independent course and potentially dividing the movement between hardliners bent on fighting and moderates committed to talks.
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist specializing in the Taliban, said that the Afghan government and its Western allies might not favor a major Taliban split at a sensitive time when Afghanistan is undergoing military and political transition.
"If they are split into hardliners and pro-peace camps, it will complicate efforts to talk peace with them," he told Gandhara. "They want the Taliban to join the peace process collectively."
Yousafazi said that the recent activities of two former Taliban leaders Syed Akbar Agha and Agha Jan Mutasim are related to Kabul's effort to push for a peace deal with the Taliban.
On May 1 Agha launched Afghanistan's Salvation movement in Kabul and claimed that it has the backing of many former Taliban members. "We need a credible and lasting peace in Afghanistan," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "All the foreigners can go back to their countries and Afghans themselves should rebuild their country after establishing peace through consensus."
Mutasim has also returned to Kabul from exile in the United Arab Emirates last week after Emirati officials warned him of security threats. His efforts to negotiate peace with Kabul for months have not made a major dent in Taliban ranks who still seek guidance from the Quetta Shura.
Yousafzai said, keeping in view the recent developments, the next few months might prove crucial for Afghanistan.
"The year 2014 will decide whether we will see a peace deal or whether Afghanistan is going to enter into a new round of fighting," he said.