Afghan opposition parties, taking advantage of the government's lack of progress in making peace with the Taliban, have opened their own channel to militant groups in hopes of putting their imprint on a deal to end 11 years of war and position themselves for next year's elections.
Taliban and opposition leaders confirmed to The Associated Press for the first time that the parties opposed to President Hamid Karzai have been talking since the beginning of the year to the Taliban as well as the militant group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a U.S.-declared terrorist.
They are trying to find a political resolution to the Afghan war ahead of two key events in 2014 — the presidential race that will determine Karzai's successor and the final stage of withdrawal of international combat troops from the country. The Afghan constitution bans Karzai from running for a third term, and there are fears that the troop withdrawal plus a new leader in the palace could usher in a new era of instability in Afghanistan.
"We want a solution for Afghanistan ... but every step should be a soft one," said Hamid Gailani, a founding member of the united opposition. "We have to start somewhere."
Two senior Taliban officials, who spoke to the AP, indicated that the group is willing to pursue talks to move the political track forward. One sign of this was that they said they were contemplating replacing their top negotiator because he isn't getting the desired results.
The Taliban wants to talk with the U.S., but it broke off formal discussions with the Americans last year. The Taliban have steadfastly rejected negotiations with the Karzai government, which they view as a puppet of foreign powers.
Taliban interlocutors have had back-channel discussions and private meetings with representatives from various countries. A senior U.S. official said the Taliban are talking to representatives of more than 30 countries, and indirectly with the U.S.
Still, a lack of transparency surrounding all the discussions through various channels makes it difficult to know exactly who's talking with whom.
Karzai, who misses no chance to champion his nation's sovereignty over foreign powers, demands that any talks be led by his government. Early last year, he said that his administration, the U.S. and the Taliban had held three-way talks aimed at moving toward a political settlement of the war.
The U.S. and the Taliban, however, both deny that such talks took place.
Hekmatyar's Islamist militant group, meanwhile, has held talks with both the Karzai government and the United States.
As the opposition pursues peace with the Taliban, Karzai has launched a new round of verbal attacks on his supposed ally, the United States, which have infuriated some in Washington and confused some of his senior advisers.
In recent weeks, Karzai has accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban to keep foreign troops in Afghanistan and has attacked the Taliban for talking to foreigners while killing Afghan civilians at home.
Earlier this month, Karzai accused the West of trying to craft an agreement between the Taliban and his political opponents and vowed to oppose the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar if it was used for talks with anyone other than his government. The U.S. has denied the allegations.
The Afghan president also has stepped up his rhetoric against his political opponents, trying to paint them as American pawns in a grand U.S. scheme to install a government of its liking when the United States and NATO finish their withdraw of combat troops by Dec. 31, 2014.
The opposition — united under a single banner called the Council of Cooperation of Political Parties — is meanwhile trying to put its stamp on a post-war Afghanistan.
It says it has reached out to both the Taliban and Hekmatyar, a one-time U.S. ally who is now listed as a terrorist by Washington.
In addition to getting the blessing of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, any peace deal would have to be supported by Hekmatyar, who has thousands of fighters and followers, primarily in the north and east.
Omar and Hekmatyar are bitter rivals, but both launch attacks on Afghan government and foreign forces and both have suspended direct talks with the U.S., saying they were going nowhere.
The opposition group is full of political heavyweights.
There are former presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ali Ahmed Jalali — both of whom were said to be Washington's preferred candidates in the last presidential election in 2009. There's also Rashid Dostum, who leads the minority Uzbek ethnic group and Mohammed Mohaqiq, the leader of another minority ethnic group called the Hazaras.
Also in the group is Ahmed Zia Massoud, a former Afghan vice president and the brother of anti-Taliban fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the ethnic minority Tajiks who died in an al-Qaida suicide attack two days before the Sept. 11 attacks that provoked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
A senior official with Hekmatyar, who is familiar with the many negotiating channels of his organization, confirmed that representatives have met with the opposition. He said the talks were nascent, but refused to give additional details.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied that the Taliban were talking with the opposition group. But a second Taliban official confirmed that the Taliban has been in contact with opposition members in Kabul.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Gailani, the founder of the united opposition group, said the group was in discussions with Taliban interlocutors close to Omar.
The opposition expects to field a consensus candidate in next year's presidential election. Reaching an understanding with both the Taliban and Hekmatyar's group would give them a greater chance to win in the 2014 polls and cobble together a multi-party government that could bring stability to a post-Karzai government.
"It's no secret that almost nobody wants any version of the Karzai clan to remain in power," said Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department at King's College in Britain who has met with current and former members of the Taliban.
But he said that he did not think that the opposition's talks with the militant groups would yield anything soon.
"They are part of a gradual process of building up links and exchanging views, which could lay the foundation for a settlement later, though only after Karzai has departed the scene," Lieven said.
Hekmatyar has laid out a 15-point plan for Afghanistan's future that calls for a broad-based government, nationwide elections, an interim administration and a series of election reforms.
The Taliban have been less clear about their vision of a future Afghanistan. However, late last year Omar, the one-eyed, reclusive leader, issued a statement in English that seemed unusually conciliatory.
"As to the future political destiny of the country, I would like to repeat that we are neither thinking of monopolizing power nor intend to spark domestic war," Omar said.
"The future political fate of the country must be determined by the Afghans themselves without any interference from big countries and neighbors, and it must be Islamic and Afghan in form," he added.
Talks with the U.S. were temporarily scuttled in early 2011 by Afghan officials who were worried that the secret, independent talks would undercut Karzai. They quietly resumed with each side seeking small signs of cooperation, but the Taliban shut down all talks with the United States after it refused to release their colleagues from Guantanamo Bay.
A senior U.S. official said there have been "no, no, no direct contacts of the U.S. with Taliban since January 2012."
Apparently frustrated by the lack of any progress in talks with the U.S., two Taliban officials told the AP that the movement's governing council was contemplating removing Tayyab Aga — special assistant to Omar during the Taliban's rule — as their lead negotiator because he "could not achieve the expected results."
Mullah Abbas Akhund, the Taliban's health minister, is being tapped as Aga's replacement, according to the two Taliban officials.
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon