The Taliban's supreme leader said Sunday he "strenuously favours" a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, even as the hardline Islamist movement pushes a sweeping offensive across the nation.
Hibatullah Akhundzada's announcement came as representatives of the insurgents and the Afghan government sat down for a new round of talks in Qatar, stirring dim hopes for a revival of long-stalled peace talks.
"In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement in the country," Akhundzada said in a statement ahead of next week's Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
"Every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security that presents itself will be made use of by the Islamic Emirate," he added.
"We fully assure neighbouring, regional and world countries that Afghanistan will not permit anyone to pose a security threat to any other country using our soil."
For months, the two sides have been meeting intermittently in the Qatari capital, but have achieved little if any notable success. The discussions appear to have lost momentum as the militants made enormous gains on the battlefield.
The head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah said the two sides were to meet on Sunday evening, but ducked journalists' questions about a possible joint statement.
There were no signs of an imminent breakthrough.
- 'Resolve it ourselves' -
Taliban leader Akhundzada said his group remained committed to forging a solution to end the war, but slammed the group's opponents for "wasting time".
"Our message remains that instead of relying on foreigners, let us resolve our issues among ourselves and rescue our homeland from the prevailing crisis," he added.
The insurgents capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country.
The group is now believed to control roughly half of the nation's 400 districts, several important border crossings, and has laid siege to a string of vital provincial capitals.
A spokesman for the Afghan security forces said that pro-government fighters had conducted 244 operations, killing 967 "enemy" fighters -- including key commanders.
"We have recaptured 24 districts so far, our goal is to retake all the territories... We are ready to defend our country," Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters.
The Taliban have long appeared to be united, operating under an effective chain of command and carrying out complex military campaigns despite perennial rumours of splits within their leadership.
But questions remain over how much control the Taliban's leaders have over commanders on the ground, and whether they will be able to convince them to abide by a potential agreement if signed.
Despite coming days ahead of the Eid holiday, the leader's statement notably made no mention of a formal call for a ceasefire.
Over the years, the Taliban have announced a series of short truces during Islamic holidays, initially spurring hopes for a larger reduction of violence.
However the group has been criticised for using the temporary ceasefires to resupply and reinforce their fighters, allowing them to launch withering onslaughts on Afghanistan's security forces once the truce expires.
- Temporary ceasefires -
In another sign of the threats facing the Afghan government, on Sunday it said it was recalling its ambassador to Islamabad and all senior diplomats over "security threats".
The top envoy's daughter was briefly kidnapped in the Pakistani capital this week.
Islamabad has touted a conference of regional leaders to address the violence after the Eid al-Adha holiday, due to start Monday.
Many in Afghanistan are planning for a subdued Eid festival.
"This year we will not be slaughtering" sheep or goats, as per tradition, said Abdullah, a resident of Jalalabad in Afghanistan's east.
"It's because the situation of our country is not good. The fighting is ongoing. We are concerned," he added.
"People are poor and most of them are worried about the increase in violence."
The US-led military coalition has been on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following an invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without vital coalition air support, allowing for a complete Taliban military takeover or the start of a multi-sided civil war in a country awash with weapons following nearly four decades of fighting.