Rejecting claims that they had met with an unauthorized Taliban delegation, Afghan government envoys said on Thursday that the insurgents they held initial talks with in Pakistan this week had the blessing of the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.
The comments by Afghan government envoys, briefing the news media in Kabul for the first time since their return from the talks, added to speculation that there was a widening rift among the Taliban’s leadership over the Afghan peace process. On Wednesday, a representative of the Taliban’s official political office in Qatar claimed that the talks had been “hijacked” by Pakistani officials who had brokered a meeting with unauthorized Taliban representatives.
Mullah Mansour is believed to be locked in a struggle for influence with other senior Taliban commanders, and he has used his credentials as a confidant of the insurgency’s reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to seed the group’s ranks with more of his loyalists in recent years.
An increasingly splintered Taliban movement would have serious repercussions for the peace process, raising questions about how much cooperation Taliban leaders in favor of negotiating could command.
But members of the Afghan delegation expressed optimism for the process ahead. During the late-night discussions in Murree, a resort town near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, the two sides agreed to seek a peaceful end to the conflict by attending regular meetings, the officials said. The sides also drew up a list of all the issues and demands for the negotiations.
Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the Afghan deputy foreign minister who attended the talks, said the government’s delegation had set no preconditions and was willing to engage the Taliban on any of the group’s demands, including the release of prisoners and the future of American military forces in Afghanistan.
“We went with good intentions and good authority,” Mr. Karzai said. “We said we are willing to discuss anything, but within a framework that leads to a continuous process.”
He added, “We will let prisoners out, but on the condition that they give us guarantees they won’t kill innocent people anymore.”
The delegations also discussed the possibility of a temporary cease-fire during the three-day festival of Eid al-Fitr, which will signify the end of fasting for Ramadan later this month, the officials said, without elaborating on whether an agreement had been reached. But specific methods “to stop the bloodletting” will be the central topic in the next round of negotiations, said Azizullah Din Mohamed, a member of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council who was part of the Afghan delegation.
With the Afghan government under severe pressure from Taliban offensives in several provinces, the public will mostly judge the talks on whether a visible reduction in the violence is achieved, said Haroun Mir, a political analyst. Decreasing the bloodshed would also be a test of the authority of the delegation that represented the Taliban.
“Without a reduction of violence, the Afghan government won’t be able to sell this to the people,” Mr. Mir said.
While the meeting this week was hailed as a breakthrough in Kabul, the Afghan capital, concerns have remained about just what faction of the insurgency was present.
Mr. Karzai, who admitted to rifts among the Taliban, said the Afghan envoys had been assured that the delegation they met had permission from Mullah Mansour and the rest of the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. He would not describe how that assurance was given. But a diplomatic official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks, said Pakistan’s military spy chief had vouched for the standing of the Taliban delegation with the insurgents’ leadership council.
What Pakistan managed to deliver at Murree were members of the Taliban closest to its establishment, some analysts and Taliban members believed. The insurgent delegation included Mullah Abbas Akhund, a member of the movement’s health commission and a longtime liaison with the Pakistani government, according to a member of the Taliban’s official political office in Qatar. The delegation also included a representative from the Haqqani insurgent network, Afghan attendees said.
The political office is now deciding whether Mullah Akhund “is still trusted” after he gave in to Pakistani pressure and attended the meeting without permission, the Qatar office representative said.
Some analysts expressed doubt that Mullah Mansour had given his full blessing to the delegation, saying the claim did not fit with the developments in the recent months.
On the urging of Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, the Pakistani military increased pressure on the Taliban’s leadership to sit down for direct talks months ago. But the pressure seemed to backfire in some ways. Members of the office in Qatar, long seen as official representatives of the Taliban’s highest leadership, expressed dismay that the Afghan government saw them as Pakistani proxies. The insurgency began its deadly spring offensive anyway.
Mr. Ghani’s patience with Pakistani officials began to run out this spring, as the violence continued with little sign of a breakthrough on talks, officials said. The Pakistani military, which has sheltered the Taliban’s leadership for years, redoubled its pressure on the insurgents to come to the table. As a result, some Taliban commanders began fleeing Pakistan, said Borhan Osman, a researcher at the Afghan Analysts Network who has written extensively about the insurgency.
That reaction, coupled with the Qatar office’s public disagreement with the Murree meeting, made him “think twice,” Mr. Osman said, about the claim that Mr. Mansour had given permission to the Taliban negotiators.
“Especially if the Qatar office has been accountable to Akhtar Muhammad Mansour himself, you can’t imagine a contradiction between the two,” Mr. Osman said.
“The most plausible scenario is that Pakistan brought the best they could offer — these are the guys that Taliban cannot deny,” he continued. “But whether they have the blessing of the leadership, that is the question.”
Fazal Muzhary contributed reporting.