KABUL -- A letter has emerged pressuring Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada to respond to the "legitimate demands" of the Afghan people for peace.
The letter, signed by Taliban shadow chief justice Mawlawi Abdul Hakim, represents the group's green light to join the Afghan-led peace process, observers say, but also reveals a deepening divide among top Taliban officials.
The Afghan Ministry of Defence provided a copy of the letter to journalists and said it was sent from Baghlan Province during the lunar month of Shaban (April 17-May 15).
"A majority of Afghans ... are fed up with the current war and its outcomes and are asking for peace," the letter says.
"Since the [Taliban] leaders have a responsibility towards the legitimate demands of the Afghan people ... the leadership should consider the public demand for peace and provide a convincing response to the Afghan people after consulting with all the leaders," it said.
Taliban loyal to Mullah Haibatullah disputed the authenticity of the letter.
The letter is "a fake" and "has nothing to do with the [Taliban]", group spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Voice of America.
"Mawlawi Abdul Hakim understands that the Taliban cannot succeed in Afghanistan; that's why he is talking about peace," Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Radmanesh told Salaam Times.
"The Taliban hide their disunity because they don't want to weaken the morale of their fighters and see them scatter, but the truth is that the group has serious internal problems," he said.
"They have been divided into 20 groups," he said. "Some of them have teamed up with the mafia and drug traffickers; some of them are with terrorists and extremists and some of them are working for regional intelligence services," said the spokesman.
"In general, despite their differences, they are all working to destroy Afghanistan and to challenge its people," Radmanesh said.
This is not the first letter to emerge in recent weeks, indicating that some factions of the Taliban are ready to accept Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's invitation to peace talks.
"Previously, a son of [Taliban founder] Mullah Mohammad Omar, as well as the Taliban's shadow governor for Helmand Province [Mullah Abdul Manan Mansori], made a similar request [for peace]," Maj. Mohammad Hanif Rezayee, a spokesperson for the 209th Shaheen Corps of the Afghan National Army, told Salaam Times.
"The Taliban have been divided into two factions: the Mullah Haibatullah front and the front of Mullah [Yaqoob's] followers. There are extreme rifts between these groups," Rezayee said. "We hope that the followers of Mullah Abdul Hakim [also] realise that war is not the solution and that they cannot reach their goals through war."
"This letter and the request made by the Taliban's chief justice is a green light ... for peace negotiations," said Ghulam Faruq Majroh, a representative from Herat Province in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament).
"The announcement of [the Taliban's] spring offensive, followed by this request from the Taliban's chief justice ... reveal a deep division among the Taliban leadership ranks regarding peace and war," he told Salaam Times.
"The peace package offered by [Ghani] to the Taliban ... provides good and comprehensive political privileges," said Aminullah Shareq, a Kabul-based political analyst and former governor of Paktika Province. "Such privileges might never be offered to them again."
"This proposed package has led a number of Taliban leaders to show interest in starting peace negotiations and ending the war," he told Salaam Times. "The letter from the Taliban chief justice clearly shows that a number of key leaders of this group are willing to make peace."
"It is absolutely clear that the Taliban's current war is religiously illegitimate," Shareq said. "The Taliban themselves have realised that they can no longer use religion as a tool to wage war and that ultimately, they have no choice but to join the peace process."
Dozens of Taliban commanders have surrendered in recent weeks, coinciding with the release of Mawlawi Abdul Hakim's letter.
In one such incident, "sixty members of the Taliban, including their ministers and commanders who have held official positions, currently or during the reign of the Taliban [1996-2001], have announced their readiness to accept peace," Kandarhar provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq told reporters April 13.
"The Taliban have realised that their continuation of war, their terrorist activities and the way in which they treat civilians have increased the gap between them and the public," Moqadam Amin, a Kabul-based political and military analyst, told Salaam Times. "Civilians hate them more every day."
"Therefore, they have been indicating ... their willingness to participate in peace negotiations and to end the war," he said.
"There is a consensus on the peace process among the public, religious scholars and international community," Mohammad Haidari, a deputy spokesperson for the Afghan High Peace Council, told Salaam Times.
"This widespread backing of the peace process has made us very optimistic about achieving peace and ending the war," Haidari said.
"We are coming closer and closer to our goal of peace," he added.