KABUL -- A growing number of Taliban militants are reaching out to the Afghan government to find ways to end the decades-long conflict -- from various Taliban groups surrendering and joining the peace process across the country to top-level Taliban leaders openly calling for peace.
Many Taliban militants are now convinced that they cannot win militarily, as recent Afghan and coalition operations -- many of which were devastating to the group's leadership and cash revenue from drug trafficking -- have forced the Taliban to pursue a political solution with the Afghan government behind closed doors.
Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, May 30 confirmed that some mid- and senior-level Taliban leaders have been secretly negotiating with Afghan officials on a possible cease-fire.
"A lot of the diplomatic activity and dialogue is occurring off the stage, and it's occurring at multiple levels," Nicholson said from Kabul in a video teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, a letter signed by the Taliban shadow chief justice Mawlawi Abdul Hakim emerged during the lunar month of Shaban (April 17-May 15), calling on the group's supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada to respond to the "legitimate demands" of the Afghan people for peace.
Mullah Abdul Manan Mansori, the Taliban's shadow governor for Helmand Province, also wrote a letter calling on the Taliban to heed the demands of Helmand residents and accept peace in Afghanistan.
Militants surrendering in small groups
Various small groups of Taliban have been surrendering to the government for the past few months -- another sign that the Taliban is growing more divided, and that its base is tilting toward making peace.
Following the lead of the Taliban surrendering to local authorities in Nangarhar province, eleven more "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) militants laid down their arms and joined the process on May 31 in Jalalabad city, the provincial capital.
"These militants who have been fighting against the government have laid down arms and are committed to bringing more militants to the peace process," newly appointed Nangarhar Governor Hayatullah Hayat told journalists at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) provincial headquarters in Jalalabad May 31.
The group's leader Shafiqullah, known as Badar, expressed regret for his past activities.
"After witnessing ISIS's cruelties and oppression, I spoke with the NDS advisor and we came and joined the peace process," Shafiqullah told reporters.
Ruhollah, 28, another member of the group, said they were unsure how to abandon ISIS.
"After we first joined [ISIS], we were told that it was an army of Islam and they were very good people. But after we saw what they have been doing, we didn’t know what to do," he said.
"Some of our other friends are still stuck with [ISIS] and I have spoken with them and they will come soon too," he added.
Public desire for peace growing
In addition to the pressure building within the Taliban to seek peace with the Afghan government, the Afghan people are voicing their desire more every day to end the long-standing war once and for all.
One group, in particular, the People's Peace Movement, reflects the grassroots support of the Afghan people for a comprehensive peace.
In the nearly two months since its start, from a sit-in in Lashkargah after a car bomb attack killed 17 civilians, the movement has expanded to include tribal elders, civil society activists and relatives -- including women -- of Afghans killed in the country's ongoing violence. It also has the support of the Afghan High Peace Council, Afghan Ulema Council and political leaders.
The movement spread to other parts of Helmand Province, and residents of Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, Farah, Bamiyan, Balkh and Nangarhar provinces have set up tents in support of the movement and its call for peace.
[Khalid Zerai from Jalalabad contributed to this report.]