After months of rumors, most observers in Kabul now believe that American officials have met with a Taliban envoy face to face. The most likely interlocutor is Tayyeb Agha, the head of the Taliban political committee and one of a handful of people in the world said to have direct contact with Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban.
Agha was last seen by world media nearly 10 years ago, as he gave defiant statements from the Taliban's last stronghold in Kandahar. While his rhetoric about thousands of fighters waiting anxiously to defeat the American invaders proved empty, Agha impressed many with his command of several languages, including English.
When U.S. authorities revealed this summer that they were negotiating with a close associate of Mullah Omar, it was widely assumed to be Agha.
"All along, what the U.S. was asking for was an address, so to speak, or a point of contact with the Taliban, and it looks like they have developed that in the last year," says Anand Gopal, a journalist who has interviewed senior Taliban leaders.
Gopal says Agha is the logical person for the Americans to be speaking with. His identity is known, avoiding the possibility of another embarrassing hoax, like the Afghan who last year convinced American and British authorities that he was a Taliban negotiator. And Agha still has the trust of Mullah Omar, Gopal says.
"Maybe five or six people in the world actually have regular access to Omar. And it wouldn't be surprising that Agha would be one of those, just because of their history," Gopal says. "Because in the final days just before the government had fallen, most of the Taliban officials had fled and were hiding, but Agha was staying close to Mullah Omar, by his side. Those things matter, even today. It would make a lot of sense that somebody like Agha is involved in these talks."
Pakistan's Uncertain Role
Agha has given scattered interviews since he escaped Afghanistan at the end of 2001. He is rumored to have been arrested by Pakistani authorities last year along with other Taliban leaders.
The arrests first appeared to be a sign of Pakistani cooperation, but observers later concluded that Pakistan was arresting Taliban figures who had made peace overtures to the United Nations. The theory went that Pakistan's powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, didn't want peace talks unless it was in control of them.
Observers say if Agha has been involved in talks in Qatar or in Europe with the Americans, it probably means Pakistan has signed off on the process and allowed him to travel. Still, some doubt Agha will offer any breakthrough.
Political commentator Waheed Mujda, who worked with Agha in the Taliban government, says Agha's importance is being exaggerated.
"He was a young man in that time; [he] was 25, now he is 35, maybe. And during these ten years it was impossible for him to go to university, or other places. Just, maybe, he studied some other religious books," Mujda says.
All Just Rumors?
What's more, Mujda says he doesn't believe there are real talks going on. Mujda says that Western sources are trying to spread rumors across the Taliban insurgency that the leadership is cutting a deal while the foot soldiers sacrifice themselves in battle.
"It's completely [a] lie, and Americans want to make problem inside [the] Taliban," Mujda says. "They want to make some Taliban armed people think, if the negotiation is held, why [should we fight]?"
Mujda says the Taliban have been conducting negotiations, but only regarding the release of prisoners they are holding. But journalist Gopal says it's the prisoner release talks that are cover for preliminary peace talks.
"It's important for the Taliban to maintain for their rank and file a sense that they're not willing to talk, so that there's no decrease in morale amongst their troops," Gopal says. "But the reality is that there are contacts through back channels that have been going on."
Even if talks have begun, they must first answer several questions. American officials say the insurgency is increasingly fragmented, and it's unclear just how much influence Mullah Omar still wields. If he is bringing the Taliban to the table, it remains to be seen whether the insurgents will be offering terms that are acceptable to Afghan society, or to the West.