KABUL, Afghanistan – After operating out of Pakistan for more than a decade, the leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban movement may have moved back to their homeland to try to build on this year's gains in the war and to establish a permanent presence.
If confirmed, the move would be a sign of the Taliban's confidence in their fight against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. It could also be an attempt by the militants to distance themselves from Pakistan, which is accused of supporting the movement.
The Taliban's leaders have been based in Pakistani cities, including Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, since their rule in Afghanistan was overthrown in the 2001 U.S. invasion after the 9/11 attacks.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the leadership shura, or council, relocated to Afghanistan "some months ago," although he would not say to where.
One Taliban official said the shura had moved to southern Helmand province, which the insurgents consider to be part of their heartland and where most of the opium that funds their operations is produced. The official refused to be identified because of security reasons.
Other Taliban sources said the justice, recruitment and religious councils had also moved to southern Afghanistan. The statements could not be independently confirmed.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office said it had no confirmation that any such move had taken place.
"No intelligence confirms that the Taliban has shifted its shura to Afghanistan," said Haroon Chakhansuri, Ghani's spokesman. "We still believe they are still operating in their safe havens outside Afghanistan."
Mujahid, however, said Kabul officials were aware of the moves, prompted by battlefield gains that the insurgents believed would put them in a strong position once talks with the Afghan government aimed at ending the war were restarted. Dialogue broke down earlier this year.
The insurgents have spread their footprint across Afghanistan since international combat troops scaled down in 2014. They have maintained multiple offensives and threatened at least three provincial capitals in recent months: Kunduz, in northern Kunduz province; Lashkah Gar, in Helmand in the south; and Tirin Kot in Uruzgan.
The U.S. military has conceded the insurgents have gained ground, although definitive breakdowns are difficult to verify. This year, Afghan security forces are believed to have suffered their worst losses since 2001, with the military estimating 2016 fatalities at more than 5,000 so far.
A permanent Taliban presence in Afghanistan would send a message to followers and fighters that the insurgents now control so much territory they can no longer be dislodged by government security forces, said Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union's ambassador in Kabul.
He said he has not confirmed the reports, which have circulated for weeks. But such a move could also be part of "the Taliban's attempt to try to create a more independent position," he said, as "parts of the Taliban would like to be under less direct pressure from Pakistan."
Ghani has failed to make headway in efforts to fully engage Pakistan in cutting support for the Taliban and bringing them into a dialogue aimed at peace. After a year-long diplomatic offensive, Ghani in late 2015 cut ties with Islamabad and has since openly accused Pakistan of waging war on Afghanistan, using the Taliban as its proxy.
Pakistani authorities deny accusations that their powerful ISI intelligence agency supports the insurgents.
With the major councils based in Afghanistan, Pakistan's role could be reduced at a time when the Islamabad government is under pressure from the United States and major ally China to rein in what many see as its terrorist-supporting activities.
If the move is confirmed, it could also indicate a unity among leaders, who have recently been portrayed by some observers, including the U.S. military, as suffering widening divisions and struggling for cash — even though the opium production under their control has an annual export value of $4 billion, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
The Taliban's leadership shura consists of 16 elected officials who oversee activity across Afghanistan, give permission for any changes in planning and strategy, and mediate disputes among military commanders. The military commanders include Mullah Yaqoub, the son of the movement's founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar — who was declared dead last year — and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the brutal Haqqani network and a co-deputy leader with Yaqoub.
The Afghan Taliban are led by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who took over after the death of Mullah Omar's successor, Akhtar Mansoor, in a U.S. drone strike this year. High-ranking Taliban officials say Haibatullah is not engaged in day-to-day decision-making. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
A senior Taliban commander, Asad Afghan, told The Associated Press the move would consolidate the insurgents' military gains and help lay the ground for a dominant position if and when peace talks resume.
"We are in the last stages of war and are moving forward," said Afghan, who is closely involved in formulating the insurgents' war strategy.
"We are the real government in Afghanistan," he said. The move across the border would give the movement "more focus" at a time it needs to be "quick, clear and more secure about our decisions."