KABUL -- Growing internal rifts among Taliban factions have been exposed in public as the group faces increased denunciation of its ongoing campaign of violence ahead of proposed intra-Afghan talks.
Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has reshuffled his team of negotiators, adding four close aides to the group, to strengthen his control over the team, a Taliban commander based in an unknown location in Pakistan told AFP on Saturday (July 18).
The aides are all members of the militant group's leadership council, which should help the team to make quicker decisions, two other sources in the Taliban movement who confirmed the move told AFP.
The talks with Kabul were originally supposed to have started in March, but there have been repeated delays, with the Taliban accused of increasing violence.
The four new negotiators, who were appointed last month, are Taliban chief justice Sheikh Abdul Hakeem; Mawlawi Saqib, former chief justice during the Taliban's rule in the 1990s; Mullah Shireen, a close aide and bodyguard of the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar; and Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, former governor of Nangarhar Province.
The reshuffle also saw three to four earlier members of the team removed, including Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, a senior militant leader, the sources said.
It comes after Haibatullah appointed Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, as head of the group's military wing.
"Yaqoob is young, energetic and experienced," the Taliban commander said, adding that Yaqoob was respected among Taliban fighters because of his family background and experience.
Yaqoob is already a member of the Taliban's central council and a deputy to Haibatullah.
Late last year, growing divisions and discontent within the Taliban became more apparent as increasing conflict over the group's leadership and its political direction further drove a wedge inside the splintered organisation.
"A number of members of the Taliban leadership opposed the agreement that the Taliban delegation in Qatar signed with [US negotiator Zalmay] Khalilzad," said Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst in Kabul and a former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan.
"Mullah Yaqoob, Mullah Shireen, Mawlawi [Abdul] Kabir, Mawlawi Abdul Hakeem and a number of other Taliban had decided to form a group against the Qatari negotiating team," he said. "But the Taliban leadership decided to include these people in the negotiating team to prevent further divisions and differences."
"It looks like that the leaders and key members of the Taliban have differences of opinion regarding peace and war, and it is likely that new changes in the composition of the group's negotiating team have resulted from these differences," said Omar Nehzat, a political analyst in Kabul.
"The Taliban leader sees his position in jeopardy so he is trying to include people close to himself in the negotiating team in order to monitor and control the delegation as well as to maintain his political and military control over the Taliban," he added.
The Taliban have a political office in Doha, Qatar, which has emerged as a likely venue to host the initial round of peace talks after the militants and the Afghan government complete a prisoner exchange.
The peace negotiations hinge on the prisoner swap, in which Kabul pledged to free about 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for around 1,000 Afghan security force captives held by the insurgents.
So far, Afghan authorities have released about 4,400 Taliban inmates, Afghan officials said.
The shuffle comes as the Taliban have carried out near-daily attacks against Afghan forces despite agreeing to the talks with the government.
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed truck near an Afghan military convoy on Monday (July 20), killing eight soldiers and wounding nine others, the Defence Ministry said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast, which took place in Sayed Abad District of Maidan Wardak Province near Kabul.
The Taliban last week claimed a suicide attack on July 13 against a rural office of Afghanistan's intelligence agency, which killed 11 security personnel and wounded dozens of people.
The bomber detonated a device inside a car near the office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Aibak. Gunmen then stormed the building and clashed with security forces for hours before they were shot dead.
Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans have joined an online campaign to denounce the Taliban, posting accounts of brutal activity.
The online campaign has generated thousands of posts condemning human rights abuses committed by the insurgents, accompanied by a hashtag that translates as "do not redeem the Taliban".
"Taliban is a terrorist group and they continuously target innocent people. They haven't changed their ignorant ideology. Human rights, women rights, freedom of speech and other fundamental democratic values mustn't be sacrificed for peace," Yasar Takar said in a Twitter post using the hashtag.
"As an Afghan woman, who was born in exile, raised and studied in wartime, I fear Taliban's interpretation of Islam, particularly when it comes to women's rights," lawyer Fereshta Abbasi tweeted.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid dismissed the latest campaign as an attempt to derail the upcoming talks.
The denunciations are "being promoted by superficial people who are ignorant and are against peace", he told AFP July 20.