Major global powers are apparently backing a new Pakistani push to resume direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Western, Afghan, and Pakistani sources say Islamabad is eager to secure the breakthrough as it hosts a major regional diplomatic conference early next month.
The nascent process, however, faces huge challenges. Kabul is deeply suspicious of Islamabad's motives in facilitating talks with Afghan insurgents whom it says Pakistan covertly supports and openly shelters.
Increasing infighting among Afghan Taliban factions jockeying for control over the once-united hard-line movement poses additional obstacles to jumpstarting a process aimed at ending four decades of Afghan wars through a negotiated solution.
A Western source briefed on the recent deliberations between senior U.S. officials and Pakistan's powerful Army Chief General Raheel Sahrif says the Pakistani leader mostly talked about resuming the Afghan reconciliation process that stalled soon after the first direct meeting between Kabul and the Taliban in early July.
Brokered by Islamabad, the talks were backed by Washington and Beijing. But the announcement of the Taliban's founding leader’s death in late July unleased a succession struggle among Taliban leaders who renounced the talks. In addition, the most violent Taliban summer fighting campaign in 14 years prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to abandon his quest for a Pakistan-brokered settlement with the insurgents.
"They will try to agree on a new round [of talks between Kabul and the Taliban] at the Heart of Asia meeting in Islamabad [on December 7]," he said.
The source says Islamabad is offering new concessions to convince Kabul to buy into the new initiative. "[In addition to] bringing the Taliban to table, Pakistan wants an agreement on ceasefire or reduction of violence agreed at this meeting," he said.
The source says Washington is trying to get an agreement between Kabul and Islamabad to move forward with these proposals. He says the initiative is supported by China, most regional powers and Afghanistan's neighbors. All of these countries are part of Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, which aims to promote "regional security and cooperation for a secure and stable Afghanistan."
An Afghan source close to the presidential palace in Kabul confirmed General Sharif is likely to visit Kabul within the next few weeks to attempt to persuade skeptical Afghan leaders to rejoin a Pakistani-brokered reconciliation initiative between Kabul and the Taliban. The source says that visit is being encouraged by Washington.
The Afghan source says Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, might visit Kabul before General Sharif's trip because there is still no preliminary agreement between Kabul and Islamabad.
The Western source says Kabul is placing tough demands before joining the process. "[It] mainly [includes] something to reduce the violence and show that the enemies of Afghanistan are [also] the enemies of Pakistan," he said.
In August, Ghani said he told Pakistani leaders that "the government of Pakistan should have the same definition of terrorism in regard to Afghanistan just as it has for its own."
In recent years, Pakistan fought vigorously against Islamist insurgents involved in attacking security forces and civilian targets. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which once controlled large swaths of territory in northwestern Pakistan, now only operate as small insurgent cells that mostly engage in hit-and-run attacks.
But Afghan officials and domestic critics accuse Islamabad of aiding and sheltering Afghan insurgents and turning a blind eye to Pakistani militants fighting for the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami, and even the Islamic State in Afghanistan. On November 21, an official in northwestern Lower Dir district, confirmed that the bodies of 22 men recently killed in southeastern Afghanistan have been buried in the region.
A source in Pakistan who requested anonymity like the Western and Afghan sources says Kabul is asking Islamabad for "some practical steps to remove the trust deficit" between the two neighbors that widened after the Taliban captured large parts of rural Afghan provinces this summer and briefly overran a major city, Kunduz, in northeastern Afghanistan in September.
"With the expansion of war [this year], the Taliban wanted to increase their weight [at the negotiating table]," he said.
The source, who was briefed by Pakistani and Afghan diplomats about their latest deliberations, says Kabul would like to see "some kind of a cut-off date for ending sanctuaries to achieve some semblance of neutrality."
He says the relatively open large Taliban gathering to select the organization's new leader, Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, in southwestern Balochistan Province in July deprived Islamabad of plausible deniability.
"It will not be enough to just bring the Taliban to the negotiating table," he said. "Ensuring there will be a lasting ceasefire will be the most important question. The Afghan side would like to get some guarantees to avoid what happened after the first round of talks in July."
During the past 14 years, Pakistani officials vehemently denied sheltering or aiding the Taliban. But in an interview in February, former Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf admitted Islamabad supported the Afghan Taliban to undermine former President Hamid Karzai's government.
Even if Pakistan and Afghanistan agree to cooperate on the peace process, growing Taliban infighting now poses a serious challenge.
While the Taliban attempted to overrun large parts of restive Afghan provinces in the south and north of the country this summer, differences between factions loyal to and opposing Mullah Mansur have now escalated to infighting aimed at eliminating opponents.
Afghan officials and locals in southern Afghanistan say scores of fighters died in pitched battles between Mansur loyalists and followers of Mansoor Dadullah, who recently became a top deputy in a breakaway Taliban faction.
Dadullah reportedly died in a clash in the southern province of Zabul on November 12. But Abdul Manan Niazi, another senior leader of the faction, claims the brother and son of the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar have once again turned against Mansur for escalating differences within the Taliban ranks into armed clashes.
He told Radio Free Afghanistan that Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund and Mullah Muhammad Yaqub have abandoned their new positions within the Taliban hierarchy to protest Mansur's policies. The two swore allegiance to Mansur in September.
"They had joined Mansur to prevent Taliban infighting," Niazi said. "But he didn't listen to them and unleased infighting in Zabul and committed atrocities, which prompted them to part ways with him."
Mullah Omar's family and the Taliban have not publicly commented on the claims, but the group's propaganda machine, controlled by Mansur, has consistently downplayed reports of fragmentation within the movement that once prided itself over unity in its ranks.
Abdul Hai Mutmaeen, a former Taliban official, says fanning differences among the Taliban faction will not help in negotiating peace with them.
"If the Taliban fragment into factions, it will further complicate the Afghan peace process," he said.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Ajmal Aand and Ahmad Takal contributed to this story.