Conflicting claims by Afghan officials and the Taliban in recent days have added to the confusion and uncertainty plaguing peace and reconciliation efforts in war-torn Afghanistan.
The murky situation about prospects of a peace dialogue has raised fears the country is likely to witness another bloody year as the traditional Afghan spring fighting season is about to begin.
Top officials in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, where key Taliban leaders are allegedly sheltering, have suggested in recent statements that peace talks between the Afghan government and the Islamist insurgent group could begin sometime in March.
The Taliban has rejected the claims and reports of any contacts with Afghan officials since early last month, when it was first reported the Islamist group was willing to enter talks with Kabul and that Pakistan was playing a role in facilitating the dialogue. There have also been reports of a Taliban delegation visiting Islamabad recently for secret talks with Pakistani officials and Chinese diplomats on how to further the peace process.
On Friday, the Taliban again rejected as a "baseless propaganda war" against the group, reports of its contacts with Kabul, saying none of its representatives at its political office in Qatar visited any country to seek negotiations with Afghanistan.
President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are among the Afghan officials who have publicly discussed efforts to open peace talks with the Taliban. The latest such statement came Thursday from Ghani’s special representative for reforms and good governance, Ahmad Zia Massoud.
He said the Taliban has shown eagerness to sit across the table for peace talks and the Afghan government is also prepared for negotiations. Massoud also said progress in these efforts is expected by next month.
Several days ago, neighboring Pakistan’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said efforts aimed at pushing the Afghan peace and reconciliation process are progressing. He made the comments in a brief chat with a small group of reporters in Islamabad, but refused to provide details.
Skeptics of the process, such as Davood Moradian, director general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, suggest the prolonged conflict has caused a rift among the Taliban ranks and the dialogue may not produce the desired results.
"We have to identify who are we going to talk with in the peace process and those who are going to be engaged in the peace process, to what extent they represent the entirety of the Taliban. So, even if we have a successful peace process, those Taliban who will be negotiating with us, I do not think they would represent the entirety of the Taliban," said Moradian.
Some critics suggest the Taliban’s refusal to acknowledge contacts with Afghan and other stakeholders for possible talks could be an attempt to dismiss suggestions of division within its ranks.
The Taliban Friday reiterated that no talks with Kabul are possible until foreign forces completely withdraw from Afghanistan to allow establishment of a "sovereign government" in Kabul.
Ghani and Abdullah are due to travel to the United States for talks with President Barack Obama later this month. On Thursday, Obama spoke with Ghani to discuss efforts that Afghan security forces are making to improve security around Afghanistan.