Taliban deputy chief in high-stakes peace gamble: analysis
Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar, the Taliban's second-in-command, is engaged in a secret, high-risk initiative to persuade his organisation's commanders to engage Afghan and United States authorities in dialogue.
Mr Baradar's initiative is just one part of an ambitious peace initiative launched early this summer. If it works, Afghanistan will have taken a huge step forward. But both experts and officials are warning against inflated expectations, and say that any meaningful progress is months, even years away.
The good news is Mr Baradar has substantial influence among the Taliban's field commanders as well as its rank-and-file. Moreover, both tribal affiliations and history work in his favour.
Born in Afghanistan's Uruzgan district, Mr Baradar is a member of the Popalzai tribe the same ethnic-Pashtun grouping to which both Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President, and the bulk of the Taliban's cadre belong to.
Mr Baradar's jihadist credentials are also impeccable. He swore allegiance to Mullah Omar when the Taliban was set up in 1994, and went on to serve as governor of Herat and Nimruz provinces. He is said to have helped Mullah Omar escape across the Afghan border after the US invasion in 2001 on motorcycle, with his chief riding pillion dressed in an all-enveloping Burka.
Taliban leaders say they will not talk until Western troops pull out but there are signs that stance might be softening. In an ambiguously worded statement published on its website early this week, the Taliban said "nobody would believe such talk unless foreign troops in Afghanistan act honestly, [and] announce clear and transparent plans".
Afghan and US authorities are also reaching out to Islamist warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, and a new High Peace Council is seeking to reconcile local insurgent leaders with the government.
No one has forgotten, though, that past efforts to get a dialogue process going went nowhere and for that reason, ISAF is wielding the military stick hard, even as it holds out the dialogue carrot.
General David Petraeus, ISAF's commander, has sharply escalated special forces and air operations against Taliban targets, a strategy intended to compel jihadists to come to the dialogue table. Gen Petraeus is expected to tell Nato commanders next month that they must be prepared to stay on ground until 2014, when the Afghan National Army is scheduled to attain independent operational capability.