As the Afghan government struggles to reach a negotiated peace settlement with insurgents while international troops prepare to withdraw, a previously marginal militant group has answered the call for talks with a resounding "no.”
Until recently, little was heard of the Mullah Dadullah Front, an extremist militant group that operates mainly out of southern Afghanistan. But that has changed, with the group claiming responsibility for the assassination of a key negotiator
for the High Peace Council, the government's main avenue for peace talks, and for sending death threats to Kabul lawmakers.
The front takes the name of a former radical Taliban commander who was killed in a U.S-led attack in Helmand Province in 2007. Afghan intelligence officials have described the group as a Taliban faction.
Despite having vowed to target members of the High Peace Council, the Taliban was quick to distance itself from the recent assassination and has publicly stated that it is not affiliated with the Mullah Dadullah Front.
Mohammad Yasin Zia, deputy chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence body, says that although details about the group are sketchy, its recent actions show the group's clear opposition to peace talks and to an extended American military presence in the country.
'They Are All Terrorists'
Zia, who played down the threat posed by the radical group, maintained that the incidents were part of a psychological war to instill fear in the minds of Afghan citizens and lawmakers.
"This is part of a psychological war," he said. "Only a few people have gathered together. They’ve created something imaginary so it can have a bad influence on the minds of Afghan people.
"There should be no concern over the group. The Mullah Dadullah Front is no different from others; they are all terrorists."
Zia's remarks come after the NDS announced on May 19 that it had arrested three members of the front in Kabul. The alleged members, who are in custody, were reportedly in possession of several suicide vests.
The arrests also followed reports last week that numerous members of parliament had received text messages and telephone calls attributed to the group, in which they were told they would be "targeted" if they ratified the recently signed strategic agreement between Washington and Kabul.
Parliament, which opened discussion on the agreement on May 22, is expected to decide on ratification as soon as this week.
The agreement, which covers relations between the two countries when NATO forces pull out in 2014, has to be ratified by the Afghan senate and parliament before it can go into effect.
The Dadullah Front also claimed responsibility for the assassination, on May 14, of Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban official who had become an influential member of the Afghan High Peace Council.
Rahmani, who lived under government protection in Kabul, was seen as a viable mediator in any future negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
After the Afghan government accused the Taliban of responsibility for the assassination, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid promptly released a statement denying involvement in the incident.
"We are still committed to our campaign against the members of the so-called peace council, but again I insist that the Taliban were not behind today’s assassination," the statement read.
Nonetheless, Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst and team leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War
in Washington, D.C., considers the Dadullah Front to be a "hard-core" offshoot within the larger Taliban movement.
He says that it is unclear how numerically strong the Dadullah Front is, but adds that the group has recently expanded its sphere of influence to the southeastern provinces of Zabul and Ghazni, in addition to the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan.
Dressler, who says the group has been active for several years, maintains that the group's power and reach should not be overstated, despite its higher profile of late.
"My sense is that the power and reach of this group is limited and although they may have increased their geographic spread, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are a significant threat," he told RFE/RL.
"Despite this, successfully executing proponents of peace talks will certainly not help the overall effort, which hasn’t fared well thus far."
Although he plays down the significance of the Dadullah Front, Dressler is discouraged by the fact that radical elements of the Taliban continue to have considerable influence over the divisive issue of peace talks with the Afghan government and international community.
"Although there are individuals within the Taliban movement that are more moderate than these extremist factions, they do not appear to be terribly influential, even if they are in fact a majority," he wrote in a recently published report.
Afghan intelligence officials have described Mullah Dadullah, the man, as an effective yet brutal militant leader who had close ties with Al-Qaeda and embraced the terrorist organization’s extremist tactics, including the use of suicide bombers and the incorporation of foreign fighters.
During the Taliban's reign, Dadullah was famous for his acts of cruelty, including public hangings, and the stoning of women.
He was also known for massacring hundreds from the minority Shi'ite Hazara ethnic group in central Afghanistan.