ISLAMABAD – As the United States and its allies try to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban before all combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, a new obstacle has arisen: Insurgent splinter groups opposed to the deal are emerging, complicating U.S. hopes of leaving behind a stable country.
These splinter groups have demonstrated their strength recently, with two brazen killings -- one of a high-ranking Taliban leader and the other of a senior member of the Afghan government's High Peace Council.
That new violence has added to the difficulty of striking a deal with the Taliban as the clock continues to wind down with only 2 1/2 years to go before the planned withdrawal. Failure to figure out all these new players in Afghanistan's varied ethnic and political groups threatens to plunge the country into more civil strife.
"I am very pessimistic," said Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
He warns that Afghanistan seems poised to repeat the devastation of the early 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal. At that time, rival rebel factions previously united against the Soviets turned their guns on each other, killing tens of thousands of civilians and paving the way for the Taliban takeover.
As more decision-makers emerge on the scene, it is becoming more difficult it is to secure a peace deal that can withstand the test of time, Yusuf said.
"Whatever peace you come up with, I believe it is not sustainable, and I believe we are probably going to see a repeat of the 1990s, where you go for a few years and then it all starts to fall apart," he said.
The U.S. began the clandestine talks with the Taliban last year, aided by Germany and secretly held in Qatar. A senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the goal for Marc Grossman, Washington's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was straightforward: Get an Afghan peace deal.
That goal has run into a series of problems.
The Taliban broke off talks earlier this year, saying the U.S. reneged on a promise to release Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. To get the Taliban back to the table, the U.S. last weekend said it was mulling a proposal to transfer some Guantanamo Bay inmates to a prison in Afghanistan. But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed told The Associated Press that the group wants the prisoners freed unconditionally before resuming talks.
In the last six months, the Taliban has had increasingly violent clashes with a militant Islamist group called Hezb-e-Islami, led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. That fighting escalated to all-out war in some parts of Afghanistan.
Hekmatyar is a former American ally who is now on Washington's wanted list. The Taliban worry that Hekmatyar's group, which is close to the government of President Hamid Karzai and has held parallel talks with the Americans, will make its own peace deal.
The fissures in the Taliban movement have been further widened by the emergence of the splinter groups opposed to the peace talks.
Here is a look at some of those groups:
-- The Jihadi Shura of Mujahedeen for Unity and Understanding. This previously unheard-of group has lashed out at Taliban talks with the United States, urged more war and criticized battlefield skirmishes between the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Although the group's size is unknown, its views were put forth in a communique that was circulated in Pakistan's tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan, suggesting a wide reach among Afghans living near the frontier.
"We consider talks in the presence of the invading crusaders as a conspiracy in the way of the establishment of a real Islamic system, for which millions of sincere youth have embraced martyrdom," said the communique, a copy of which was acquired by the AP.
-- The Dadullah Front. This group is believed to get most of its strength in the Taliban strongholds of southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces. According to Taliban members familiar with the organization, it is led by Daddi Allah, the brother of Mullah Dadullah, a one-legged Taliban commander who was killed by U.S. forces in 2007. His death ended a spree of beheadings and kidnappings.
Daddi Allah has threatened to kill pro-peace activists, and he accused the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, of orchestrating the death of his brother.
In May, the Dadullah Front claimed responsibility for killing Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a member of the government's High Peace Council and an ex-Taliban member. The group vowed to kill anyone who talked peace while foreign soldiers were still in Afghanistan.
-- The Feday-e-Mahaz, or "Suicide Brigade." This group is led by Omar Kitab, who had been aligned with Mullah Dadullah before his death. Kitab was also close to the Taliban military shura until earlier this year, when he broke away following the announcement of talks with the United States.
Rogue Taliban members opposed to talks attacked and nearly killed Agha Jan Motasim, one of the most powerful members of its ruling council and an advocate of a peaceful end to the war. Although no one took responsibility for the attempted assassination, members of either the Dadullah Front or the Suicide Brigade are believed to be behind it. Motasim, seriously wounded in the attack, went to Turkey for treatment and was later threatened with death if he continued to talk to the media.
The United States has watched the tensions grow as both Washington and Kabul have pursued the peace process, said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
"While we are not surprised to see greater splintering among the Taliban, we remain open to talks with those who want peace," he said.
Simbal Khan, Afghanistan and Central Asia director at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, said the emergence of the splinter groups has not only raised the stakes for the Taliban central command as they approach a deal with the U.S., but also has increased the political costs if the peace process fails.
The U.S. strategy to encourage members of the Taliban to give up the fight and join the government may have backfired, Khan said, driving the disaffected members instead into the arms of the hard-liners rather than to Karzai.
"The latest reports suggest that the new splintered groups do not seek re-integration with the Afghan state, and instead seek to oppose the Mullah Omar-led putative peace process in Qatar," she said. "Various analysts have long said that there are significant political costs and risks for the Taliban in participating in an overt peace process."
As that process is pursued, battles continue between the Taliban and other groups.
In Afghanistan's central Ghazni province, Hezb-e-Islami commander Lutfullah Khamran said he had thousands of men fighting the Taliban, which he accuses of burning schools and mosques. Reports of his successes are mixed, but he said by telephone that he wasn't ready to stop fighting until the Taliban were driven from the province. The groups also are reportedly fighting in eastern Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
Seth Jones of the U.S.-based Rand Corporation has monitored fighting between the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, led by the warlord Hekmatyar, since 2009. He anticipated more fighting ahead of 2014, calling it "eerily reminiscent of Afghanistan in the early 1990s."
"In short, a precipitous U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan could increase the probability of a civil war among Afghan factions," Jones said.
Yet Hekmatyar's brother-in-law, Ghairat Baheer, said the fighting would stop if a political alternative emerged and international troops left Afghanistan. Baheer said Hekmatyar is not interested in a government post and is at odds with the Taliban over its demand for an Islamic emirate. He also insists on elections, which the Taliban reject as contrary to Islamic law.
In the end, Khan said battle fatigue may be the only thing to save the peace process.
"The way forward is still for the U.S. to try and flog out a peace deal with the Taliban high command after the next U.S. elections are over," she said. "Once a peace process is truly under way, marginal groups within the Taliban and without will find themselves isolated and more manageable. There is war fatigue in all Afghans, Afghanistan's neighbors and the Taliban."