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Reported Taliban Peace Talks Raise Urgent Question: Who Is The Man Talking For Mullah Omar?

"When I met him during the Taliban period he was a young man. He might be around 32 to 33 years old. He was very close to Mullah Mohammad Omar. He used to work at his office. He had worked as his [Omar’s] secretary during the Emirate [Taliban regime] period."

That's Waheed Muzhdah, a former Taliban foreign ministry official who is now a Kabul-based political analyst. He is talking about Tayyab Agha, a man said to be the direct representative of Taliban leader Mullah Omar in a report by German newsmagazine "Der Spiegel" that describes recent negotiations in Germany between Agha and U.S. diplomats.

Born in Kandahar, Tayyab Agha belongs to the new generation of the Taliban. Unlike some older representatives of the hard-line Islamist movement, he is fluent in English and comfortable on a computer.

Besides working as a Mullah Omar's chief of staff, Tayyab Agha has served in several other positions in the Taliban administration. According to Afghan journalist Sami Yusufzai, he was an official in the foreign ministry and at the Taliban's embassy in Islamabad.

So far the Taliban leadership has made no statements about Agha's role or his mandate as a negotiator. And this, along with the fact that Mullah Omar himself remains a fugitive, raises questions about his credibility as a representative.

Syed Ali Shah, a Quetta-based reporter for the Pakistani daily newspaper "Dawn," tells RFE/RL that despite his relative youth during the years of Taliban rule, Agha was still a prominent figure -- exemplified by the fact that he was chosen to announce the end of the Taliban regime in 2001.

"When the Taliban's government ended in 2001...[Agha] held a press conference in Spin Boldak [an Afghan district close to the Pakistan border], which was attended by both national press in Afghanistan and international media," " Shah says. "I think it was the first time he had appeared in front of the media."

Some analysts note that even if Tayyab Agha was in close contact with Mullah Omar while the Taliban was in power, that is little help when it comes to determining his current status within the Taliban organization.

Asked about Agha's role in the current Afghan Taliban organization thought to be based in Quetta, Pakistan, Afghan journalist Sami Yusufzai says: "I don't think that he has any major role in the Quetta Shura Taliban. His name does not come up when people talk about the mainstream Taliban council, but he does seem to have some role in the Taliban's political wing, which they established recently."

Journalist Ali Shah has his own doubts about the likelihood of Agha taking part in peace negotiations on behalf of the Taliban.

"The fact that this was the first time in the last nine years that I have heard his name -- in the context of negotiations with the Americans -- reminds me of other alleged talks reportedly held with a so-called Taliban representative," says Shah.

Shah is alluding to talks conducted last year in Kabul between NATO representatives and another presumed Taliban representative who turned out to be an imposter -- a fiasco that highlighted the pitfalls that can arise when seeking diplomatic ties with a group as shadowy and amorphous as the Taliban.

"There was news that NATO was involved in such talks with the Taliban," Shah says. "Then your [Western] media reported that the man with whom they were involved in discussions turned out to be a shopkeeper in the city of Quetta."

Shah is skeptical about the identity of the man alleged to be Tayyab Agha, but he says that if the man is indeed who he claims to be, then he probably does have some sort of mandate from someone in the senior levels of the Taliban.

Afghan analyst Waheed Muzhdah says that even if the man is the real Tayyab Agha, his credibility as a negotiator will be undermined by the Taliban's refusal to publicly acknowledge his role. So far, says Muzdah, the Taliban refuses to endorse such talks.

Muzdah also wonders about another point. In February 2010, Pakistani authorities apparently arrested Agha along with another high-ranking Taliban figured named Mullah Baradar. Some sources claimed at the time that Baradar was arrested precisely to prevent him from participating in peace talks, which some in the Pakistani government could have regarded as contrary to Pakistan's national interests. If those reports are true, then the possibility arises that Agha might have been actually sent by the Pakistanis to participate in negotiations.

"There is a suspicion that he was arrested by the Pakistanis, along with other people, and now they [Tayyab Agha and others] might be engaged in the talks at the request of the Pakistani side," Muzdah says. "At the same time, the Taliban says that those engaged in peace talks are not their representatives, and this may be evidence that they are not actually under Taliban control."

Unless the Taliban issues some response to this specific case, he says, it will be hard to answer these lingering questions.

-- Muhammad Tahir, with Daud Khattak of Radio Mashaal and Asmat Sarwan of Radio Free Afghanistan