KARACHI, Pakistan - Taliban officials and the Afghan government have held new secret talks in Qatar aimed at restarting peace negotiations to end the country's long war, three officials say, though questions remain over which faction of the insurgency is doing the talking.
Talks between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the militants fell apart in July 2015 after Afghan officials announced the death years earlier of the insurgency's longtime leader, the Taliban's one-eyed founder Mullah Mohammed Omar. In the time since, a leadership struggle within its ranks broke into the open and Omar's successor was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Now, the Taliban itself is denying the new talks while its fighters continue to battle government forces, suggesting another break within the insurgency. How much power that splinter group wields may prove to be the crucial question in how far this new effort goes.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain first reported on the talks Tuesday, saying the first happened in September and second this month in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The small, natural-gas-rich country on the Arabian Peninsula hosts a Taliban political office, whose earlier insistence to fly the white flag of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and use the term the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" derailed earlier peace talks in 2013.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to release the information, said he was aware of recent meetings in Doha between "mid-level Taliban and Afghan officials." He said a U.S. official also attended the meetings, though he did not know specifics of what was discussed as Pakistan did not take part.
"We wish them a success in bringing peace in Afghanistan as peace in our neighbour is good for all," the official said. Pakistan long has been viewed with suspicion in neighbouring Afghanistan over its intelligence services' long relationship with the Taliban.
An Afghan government official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as the talks were supposed to remain secret, also confirmed the meetings took place, without elaborating.
Mohammad Haroon Chakhansuri, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said in a statement that "despite the continued fighting, we pursue different channels for peace talks." He declined to answer any questions regarding the Doha talks.
Qatar's government, which also helped mediate the 2014 Taliban prisoner swap that freed U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Qatar declined to comment. Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman at the State Department in Washington, declined to answer questions about the talks or identify the American official who took part.
"We are committed to promoting a negotiated settlement to end the Afghan conflict," Toner said in a statement.
News of the talks apparently sparked confusion among the ranks of the Taliban. Zabihullah Mujahid, the insurgency's spokesman, described reports of talks taking place as "baseless news" as the Qatar office's chief did not take part.
Another Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists, confirmed the talks took place and said that office chief's absence from them reflected a continuing power struggle within the movement over who should run the Qatar office. That likely comes as part of larger questions about the group's direction, years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan over the Taliban harbouring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
America's longest war continues in Afghanistan, even after NATO and the U.S. ended combat operations at the end of 2014 and put Afghan forces in charge of the country's security. Since then, Afghan forces have suffered heavy casualties battling Taliban insurgents who have at times overrun provincial capitals before being pushed back.
A four-nation group that included Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States launched efforts earlier this year to restart peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning group focused on resolving conflict, also has held parallel, closed-door talks in Doha with Taliban and Afghan officials.
Anatol Lieven, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar, said factions within both the Taliban and the Afghan government opposed the idea of peace talks. However, he said some within both sides wanted to lay down arms after decades of war in Afghanistan that followed the 1979 Soviet invasion.
"These are not peace talks, they are talks about talks about talks," Lieven said. "One of the things of course that one has to remember about talks of these kinds is that they generally take a very, very, very long time."
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad; Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan; and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.