Two senior military leaders in southern Afghanistan have contradicted each other over the possible return of senior Taliban leaders to the region where the hard-line movement first emerged two decades ago.
The reality of the Taliban leadership’s presence in one of the most hotly contested regions in Afghanistan, however, is still murky.
While some Taliban leaders are apparently active in southern Afghanistan, there is no definitive proof that the entire insurgent chain of command now operates from within Afghanistan.
This week, General Abdul Raziq, the powerful police chief of southern Kandahar Province, raised hopes for a breakthrough in negotiations with the Taliban by claiming some Taliban have abandoned Pakistan and relocated to Afghanistan.
Addressing hundreds of tribal leaders in Kandahar, capital of the province with the same name, he claimed at least six senior Taliban leaders -- all members of the movement’s leadership council -- have moved into neighboring Helmand Province after leading the Taliban insurgency from Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, from across the border since 2003.
“We have information that six Taliban leaders have relocated to Helmand along with their families. Last week, three more officials were arrested when they attempted to leave Pakistan,” he said on December 19.
Raziq said the returning leaders and those detained in Pakistan want to free themselves from Islamabad’s influence. Kabul blames Islamabad for hosting and supporting the Taliban, whose leadership council is often referred to as the Quetta Shura to highlight its connection to Pakistan.
“They wanted to free themselves of the neighboring country’s stranglehold,” he said. “For 14 years, they were provided security [in Pakistan], but the day they decided to return to their homeland they were arrested and humiliated.”
His claims are also backed by a recent report by the Associated Press that cited Taliban claims that their leadership has returned to their homeland to consolidate gains and build a permanent presence.
Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, the “operational commander” of all Afghan forces in Helmand, however, disputes claims that any Taliban leaders have returned to his province.
In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he vehemently denied the return of Taliban leaders. He says the Taliban’s leadership council or Quetta Shura is in disarray after the insurgents confirmed the death of their founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in July 2015. The Taliban said he had died on April 23, 2013.
“The war we are facing here in our homeland is not guided by any [insurgent] leadership council. Instead, we are facing regional states who are acting as our enemies,” he said. “While they utilize the name of the Taliban leadership council, a serious investigation will reveal that no such thing exists.”
While Qahraman refrained from blaming Pakistan by name, most Afghan officials and public opinion see Islamabad as the main foreign backer of the insurgents.
Since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Pakistan has vehemently denied the presence of Taliban leaders and fighters on its soil. However, in an unusually candid admission in March, Pakistani prime minister’s adviser for foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, said his country has considerable influence over the Taliban because its leaders live in the country.
"We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here," he told a think-tank audience in Washington.
Abdul Baseer Alizai, a tribal leader in Helmand, says a group of some 10 Taliban leaders from the Quetta Shura recently arrived in Musa Qala and Kajaki districts in the province’s north. He was, however, not sure whether they were accompanied by their families.
“They wanted to motivate locals in Musa Qala to provide recruits because people there are fed up with the fighting,” he said. “They also intervened in a local land dispute between the residents of Musa Qala and neighboring Nowzad districts and are also rumored to have worked on healing rifts within some local Taliban formations.”
Mohammad Qasim, a political commentator in Helmand, says that if confirmed, the Taliban leadership’s return to Helmand can boost the prospects of peace between the government and the insurgents.
“The reliance of Taliban leaders on Pakistan exposed them to accusations that they were working for its interest. In addition, it also showed that the Taliban were not their own masters when it came to peace negotiations,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Given that a bulk of the Taliban fighters in Helmand are locals and they now control most territories in the region, the presence of their leadership here will make it easier to talk to them.”
The presence of Taliban leaders, however, is unlikely to affect the battlefield through the winter months, when the harsh Afghan winter forces a lull in fighting.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.