Al Jazeera reported on Sunday that Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, held talks recently with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of one branch of the Afghan insurgency.
It was the first report of such high-level contacts - but rumours of talks between Karzai and the Haqqani network have been floating around Kabul for weeks, according to Michael Semple, an Afghanistan analyst and a former deputy to the European Union special representative in that country.
Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reports on talks between Haqqani and the Afghan government
"Afghans that I talk to... passed along stories of shuttle diplomacy between Ibrahim Haqqani [the brother of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network] and Karzai's government," Semple said.
"They claimed Haqqani would travel between Islamabad, Kabul, and Miranshah," the main town in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency, believed to be the Haqqani network's headquarters.
Karzai has denied holding any meetings with Haqqani officials. So too has the Pakistani army, which reportedly helped to broker the talks along with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's spy agency.
"We have no knowledge of such a meeting taking place," said Major General Athar Abbas, the army spokesman.
Still, the reports of meetings have fuelled a great deal of speculation about motives - Karzai's, Haqqani's and Pakistan's.
A "strategic asset"
Karzai's interest in negotiations is not difficult to understand: The Afghan president has spent the last few months pushing a "reconciliation" plan aimed at opening a dialogue with the insurgency. And the Haqqani network is considered the most ruthless of Afghanistan's insurgent groups, responsible for a number of high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. (It allegedly tried to assassinate Karzai himself in April 2008.)
"The Americans are only interested in talks with Mullah Omar," said Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad. "But Karzai thinks that, if he doesn't negotiate with Haqqani, he won’t have security."
Pakistan has long described the Haqqani network as a "strategic asset." Their relationship spans three decades: The Pakistani intelligence services trained and equipped Jalaluddin Haqqani to fight against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Analysts believe Pakistan wants to ensure a friendly government in Kabul by installing Haqqani leaders in senior roles.
"They would have someone in the Afghan government with whom the Pakistani security establishment is closely linked," said Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, in an interview from Kabul.
The leaked reports of high-level meetings could be seen as an effort to bolster Pakistan's argument that it can convince insurgent leaders to reconcile with the Afghan government.
On the other hand, reports of early negotiations with Haqqani could further undermine support for Karzai's reconciliation plan - particularly with non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan, who are vehemently opposed to negotiations with the leadership of the brutal Haqqani network.
"Maybe those against the idea are using this to claim, look, Karzai is talking with the worst first," Semple said. "It would confirm that their worst fears are coming true."
Jalaluddin Haqqani has a 30-year relationship with the Pakistani government [GALLO/GETTY]
Haqqani's motivations, though, are somewhat difficult to understand. The Haqqani network has shown little interest in joining the Afghan government - unlike, say, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's militia, which earlier this year presented a 15-point peace plan to Karzai.
Ruttig, who stressed that he could not confirm whether senior Haqqani figures had met with Karzai, said the Haqqani network has generally rejected any rapprochement with Kabul.
"The Haqqani network would only enter into talks if it was interested in being part of the power structures in Kabul," Ruttig said. "But at the moment it's in a very confrontational mood. I have not heard anything about overtures from them to Kabul."
It's unclear whether even high-level talks would siphon off much of the insurgency's strength. Hamid Gul, a former ISI director, said insurgent leaders do not feel any military pressure to negotiate.
"Contact with Karzai is meaningless at this stage, when the Taliban feel victory is around the corner," Gul said.
And the Haqqani network does not enjoy widespread popularity. It maintains a base of support in several provinces in eastern Afghanistan - Paktia, Paktika and Khost - but it has limited popularity in Helmand and Kandahar, the Pashtun provinces in southern Afghanistan. Mullar Omar's group is far more popular in the south.
"They need to talk to the mainstream Taliban, to Mullah Omar's group, which has popularity with the Pashtun population," said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively about the Taliban. "Haqqani is largely a bit player. He’s ruthless... he doesn't command the loyalty of most of the Pashtun population."