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 US 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 US 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.
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