Afghan President Hamid Karzai has held face-to-face talks with Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a particularly brutal militant group with ties to al-Qaida, Al Jazeera reported on Sunday.
The presidential office reportedly denied that any meeting took place between Karzai and the Haqqani network, a group high on the CIA's hit list that is believed to have been behind some of the most sophisticated attacks across Afghanistan.
Pakistan's army chief and the head of the country's intelligence services are thought to have accompanied Haqqani to the talks, sources told Al Jazeera. Pakistan's intelligence and military officials have long been thought to foster close links with members of the Taliban and other militant groups working in Afghanistan.
The reports have fuelled speculation that Pakistan is trying to forge a deal that would safeguard its interests in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr said from Kabul.
Pakistan's neighbor and arch-rival India accuses Islamabad of supporting militant groups in Afghanistan and India's part of Kashmir. India's presence in Afghanistan has grown dramatically since the Pakistan-supported Taliban government was toppled in late 2001.
On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that while Pakistan has an important role in brokering talks between Afghan militant factions and Karzai's government, the Haqqanis were probably irreconcilable with the Afghan government and unlikely to give up their al-Qaida ties.
"We see Pakistan as a partner in fighting violent extremism," Hague told reporters during a trip to Pakistan's capital Islamabad on Wednesday.
He declined to criticize Pakistan for allegations that its intelligence service has deep, active links with the Haqqanis and other elements of the Afghan Taliban.
The U.S. and its allies are struggling to shore up confidence in Kabul that the war strategy is on track. After more than eight years of war, the Taliban is resurgent and many Afghans are weary of the ongoing insecurity and pervasive government corruption.
The top American military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, flew to Afghanistan on Saturday to assure Karzai that the new Afghan war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, would pursue the policies of his predecessor, including efforts to reduce civilian casualties.
Petraeus is taking over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of his command by President Barack Obama after he and his aides were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine making disparaging remarks about top administration officials.
Violence has been on an upswing in the volatile south in recent weeks, with NATO deaths reported daily.
NATO announced Sunday that more than 600 Afghan and international troops were battling al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the eastern province of Kunar, which borders Pakistan. Three members of the allied force were killed in the fighting, including two Americans, a military statement said.
June has become the deadliest month of the war for NATO troops with at least 93 killed, 56 of them American. For U.S. troops, the deadliest month was October 2009, with a toll of 59 dead.
Taliban attacks against those allied with the government or NATO forces have also surged. In the latest such violence, the headmaster of a high school in eastern Ghazni was beheaded by militants on Saturday, the Education Ministry said. A high school in the same district — Qarabagh — was set on fire the same day.