Taliban leaders trapped in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar have contacted local tribal leaders, hoping either to negotiate the city's surrender, cut deals for their own escape or both, according to Afghan tribal sources in Pakistan.
Several senior commanders in the shrinking areas of southern Afghanistan still under Taliban control are said to have made similar overtures, as prominent figures in other areas flee the country.
"I've met a lot of Taliban commanders in [the Pakistani border town of] Chaman," said Abdul Khaliq, chief of the Noorzai tribe, whose forces control the western provinces of Farah and Nimroz and who wields considerable influence in the southern Afghan frontier town of Spin Buldak. "We discussed the situation. There's a lot of them not ready to fight."
So far, however, no top Taliban figure has been seen in Pakistan, and the movement's former ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, has denied Pakistani media reports listing several alleged high-level defectors.
"These people are not here. I am in contact with most of them. I contact them by satellite phone and that means they are in Afghanistan," he told The Times in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Zaeef, however, did confirm that negotiations are underway over the future of Kandahar despite Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's vow never to surrender the city.
"Such kind of talks are always going on, but nothing significant is coming out of it," he said. "We haven't put any conditions on this. We will see what happens. Allah only knows what will be happening tomorrow."
Khaliq said he had personally met with the Taliban's minister of justice, Nooruddin Turabi, to discuss how to bring an end to the fighting in Kandahar. He said the meeting had taken place recently, also in Chaman.
"We discussed a lot and he agreed with us" that the fighting should end, Khaliq said. "He said he would meet with friends and even try to convince Mullah Omar."
The reclusive Omar is believed to still be in Kandahar. He has issued a series of statements in recent days urging Taliban fighters not to surrender.
Turabi was scheduled to meet with Khaliq again today, reportedly to negotiate safe passage out of Kandahar for several Taliban commanders loyal to him. A source close to Khaliq said the meeting was arranged after three frantic telephone calls from the Taliban minister.
Turabi, considered one of the most doctrinaire of the fundamentalist Taliban leaders, was responsible for enforcing Sharia, the Muslim legal code, as well as lesser regulations such as those governing women's dress and the length of men's beards.
Another anti-Taliban figure, Ahmed Karzai, said in an interview that the family compound in Quetta has received more than 10 calls over the last couple of weeks from what he described as some of the most senior members of the Taliban movement, also seeking to end the war.
"They were all wanting to negotiate," said Karzai, whose brother, Hamid, is leading a group of nearly 2,000 anti-Taliban fighters that over the last week advanced to within a few miles of Kandahar's western outskirts.
Karzai declined to identify the individuals but said they included two Cabinet members, two provincial governors and two major commanders. At least some of the contacts were made through intermediaries, he said.
The Taliban's deputy interior minister, Mohammed Khaksar, has joined the anti-Taliban alliance in the Afghan capital, Kabul, becoming the highest-ranking defector from the Taliban inner circle. Most of the Taliban leadership is believed to be in Kandahar.
Khaliq told a group of reporters last weekend that Omar appeared to be unmoved by any suggestion of surrendering Kandahar, and he hinted that only the presence of large numbers of Arab fighters in the city was preventing wholesale defections within both the Taliban leadership and its rank and file. The Arabs are linked to the Al Qaeda group of fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden.
Elsewhere, however, many Taliban officials have managed either to defect or to slip into Pakistan.
The Taliban's head of public security in the Afghan border town of Spin Buldak, Najibullah Akhund Shirzai, recently crossed into Pakistan and was spotted in the border area Tuesday with the ultimate sign that he had no intention of returning to the Taliban fold: He had shaved his beard.
He told a friend that he planned to wait in Pakistan for two to three months before returning to his home in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul.
Pakistani sources said at least four Taliban officials--including a former governor of Kunar province, Abdurauf Khaddem--have crossed the border into Pakistan over the last few days and have taken refuge in a large Muslim religious school at Akora Khattak, southeast of Peshawar. The area is the location of an important training center for Pakistani special forces.
Tuesday, the BBC's Pushtu-language service reported that a group of former senior Taliban officials, including one unnamed Cabinet minister, had met in Peshawar and issued a call for Omar to hand over power to tribal leaders.
Reports that senior Taliban leaders want to negotiate a surrender coincide with accounts that conditions inside Kandahar have deteriorated sharply.
With no electricity and few shipments of food or fuel making it into the city, and U.S. bombing nearing the end of its second month, there is little for those remaining in the city to do except remain indoors and try to keep warm, according to people recently arrived in Quetta from Kandahar.
Nasruddin Agha, a merchant who travels frequently between Kandahar and the Pakistani frontier area, Tuesday described the city as "two-thirds destroyed" by the bombing raids. Other reports from the city indicate that the majority of the population has fled to surrounding rural areas to escape the bombing.
With roads into Kandahar either unsafe or cut off by anti-Taliban forces, few commercial vehicles are getting through. The de facto blockade, coupled with the absence of relief supplies, has heightened worries among international aid officials.
"We're extremely concerned about the welfare of the civilians inside Kandahar," said Michael Huggins, a spokesman for the World Food Program. He said the organization has been unable to distribute food there since its staff was expelled from the city after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
Mohammed Tahir Khan, who covers the Taliban for the privately funded Pakistani news agency News Network International, traveled to Kandahar with Taliban leaders two weeks ago and said much of the population had left.
"The city may turn into a ghost city in a few days," he said.