Scribbled notes from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar have surfaced in mosques all over Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun heartland, threatening death to anyone who takes up a government offer to negotiate for peace, according to a longtime Taliban member.
Trying to quash rumors of a break in their ranks, the Taliban also have vehemently denied reports — including one by The Associated Press — that representatives of the militant group were involved in negotiations with the Afghan government.
The leadership could be worried that commanders might strike separate deals that would threaten to undermine the insurgency and cripple the morale of their rank-and-file fighters.
President Hamid Karzai has made reconciliation a top priority and recently formed a 70-member High Peace Council to find a political solution to the insurgency. At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition has ramped up its military campaign in an effort to pound Taliban commanders to the negotiating table.
There are no signs that either strategy is having much effect on the senior Taliban leadership.
A veteran Taliban member who recently visited the powerful shura — or council — in the Pakistani city of Quetta and controlled by Mullah Omar said there was no talk of negotiation among those who control the insurgency.
"None of the big Taliban is talking," the bulky, bearded Taliban member said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from both the government and the religious movement. "I have been to Quetta and I know the council there is not talking."
In an interview with the AP, he said the handwritten scribbled notes started appearing in mosques shortly after news of Karzai's peace overture was broadcast around the country. In the past, Mullah Omar has used notes and sometimes audio recordings to get his message across.
"We heard it on the radio," the Taliban member said of Karzai's overture and reports of contacts between the Taliban and the government.
"No one in our village has televisions," explained the man, who has played an integral role in the Taliban for the past 15 years and has been interviewed numerous times by the AP since the 1990s. "The Taliban don't allow televisions." During Taliban rule, television was banned as un-Islamic.
Even if the top Taliban leadership did not participate, a number of exploratory talks have taken place with the militants over the past two years, according to lawmakers, peace council delegates and former and current members of the Taliban.
The talks were held in various places, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan, said Habibullah Fauzi, a peace council member who once served as the Taliban's ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
"It's not because they can bring Taliban fighters with them that they are talking," Fauzi said. "Some are facing problems and don't know if they can stay safe in Pakistan; or some were not given the powerful positions in the Taliban they thought they might have."
According to peace council members, those who have held talks with government officials include Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the former Taliban governor of Nangarhar province; Aga Jan Mohtasim, a former Taliban finance minister and current member of the Taliban council in Pakistan's North Waziristan area; Maulvi Akhtar Mansoor, a former Taliban minister of civil aviation; Qatradullah Jamal, a former Taliban information minister; and Tayyab Agha, a special assistant to Omar.
One member of parliament told the AP that he personally met four times with Mohtasim.
"These are not official negotiations. They are Taliban meeting with people they trust to try to know what the government and the international community is thinking," said the parliamentarian, who declined to be identified because it would compromise his relationship with the Taliban.
The AP has previously reported that Kabir and two other midlevel Taliban leaders met with Karzai in mid-October to discuss the Haqqani network, an al-Qaida-linked group that controls much of eastern Afghanistan.
A former Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said the discussion did not focus on the peace effort, but rather on weakening the Haqqani network's influence in eastern Afghanistan by dividing tribal loyalties between its leader and Kabir.
The Taliban and Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omar both contested the AP story, saying this meeting never took place.
In his interview, the 15-year Taliban veteran painted a picture of increasing violence as the group shifts its fight from the south, where it is constantly attacked by NATO forces, to eastern provinces such as Ghazni.
Taliban fighters overran a county seat in Ghazni on Nov. 1, captured its headquarters and police station and set both ablaze. They then melted back into the mountains — with at least 16 police officers who apparently defected to the Taliban.
"Ghazni now is worse than Helmand because the Taliban are everywhere, and the Americans are bombing and attacking Taliban every day and in the night they come with their helicopters," he said. "We have Punjabis, Arabs, Chechens and Pakistani Pashtuns coming over the mountains."
In the Pakistani city of Quetta, he said, Afghan Taliban are sheltered by members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an extremist group believed to have been organized a decade ago with the help of Pakistani intelligence to fight the Indians in disputed Kashmir.
He said those who cross the frontier from Pakistan bring bombs, which they assemble in Ghazni and then give to local fighters for use elsewhere, adding that he personally saw this happen several days earlier.
"In front of my eyes, we were sitting and talking and they were making their bomb," he said.
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent covering Afghanistan and Pakistan.