Afghan warlord Hekmatyar talks peace, but brings little to table

Afghan warlord Hekmatyar has sent delegates to Kabul for more preliminary peace talks. But his Hizb-e-Islami group lacks teeth on the battlefield and is unlikely to sway more powerful insurgent factions, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

By , Staff writer

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    In this March 7 photo, fighters for the Hizb-e-Islami militia, loyal to regional Afghan warlord Hekmatyar, surrender their arms to Afghan police in Baghlan province.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai is holding peace talks with a top envoy from one of the three main insurgent groups, but analysts caution that any deal may not dramatically change the course of the war.

The group, Hizb-e-Islami, has made more overtures toward reconciling with the Afghan government than its allies, the Taliban and the Haqqani network, have. It has held occasional meetings with the Kabul government for at least the past few months.

But Hizb-e-Islami, whose forces are focused in northeastern Afghanistan, has also become the least active of the three on the battlefield. And the group's leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been fighting more for power than ideological reasons. These factors blunt the persuasion value of any peace settlement with Hizb-e-Islami on the other two factions fighting the Afghan government, the United States, and their allies.

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"I don't think a peace deal would make a difference either on the insurgency or on peace in different areas of Afghanistan," says Waliullah Rahmani, head of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. "It's the Taliban who are the main drivers of insurgency in Afghanistan and they have some specific preconditions, and it is hard to contact them in a manner that the government is approaching Hizb-e-Islami."

News of the talks broke over the weekend. Mr. Karzai met with Qutbuddin Helal, a former prime minister and the current deputy of Mr. Hekmatyar.

Talks are ongoing, says Maqbul Ahmad, the deputy for Arif Noorzai, a Karzai adviser involved in the negotiations. If they bear fruit, says Mr. Ahmad, an announcement may come by the end of the week.

Speaking to the Monitor in early February, Ahmad said government talks with Hizb-e-Islami had made good progress but needed approval from the United States to go further. Ahmad now says that the negotiations have US and NATO support.

Tough demands

Still, certain conditions sought by Hizb-e-Islami remain beyond the pale of what the Karzai government – let alone the US – would countenance. Ahmad says some conditions would violate the Constitution, and "Mr. Karzai will not change the Constitution."

Hizb-e-Islami is also proposing the formation of a transitional government from which a new president would be chosen – also unacceptable to Karzai, says Ahmad.

After that, the group is seeking the removal of foreign forces, but has signaled some moderation on this point, says Mr. Rahmani. They have dropped it as a precondition for peace and are instead fishing for a timeline for withdrawal. Similarly, the transitional government idea might be met halfway by agreeing to give ministerial and judicial positions to Hizb-e-Islami within the current government structure, he says.

Boxed out by the Taliban

Hekmatyar has been fighting for decades for leadership in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the US funded him to fight the Soviets. In the scrum for power that followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed government, Hekmatyar battled other mujahideen commanders for control of Kabul, eventually shelling the city. The bloodshed blackened the reputations of those commanders, including Hekmatyar, among many Afghans.

Then the Taliban regime sidelined Hekmatyar, and when their government was overthrown in 2001, the old warlord wasn't included in the Bonn Process that formed the new US-backed government.

While observers of Afghan politics postulate that Hekmatyar is tired of fighting and wants a share of power in Kabul, doubts linger about whether he has the temperament to work under anyone else.

Despite Hekmatyar's perennial outsider status as well as multiple schisms in Hizb-e-Islami, the party remains one of the more organized political forces in the country.

Other factions of the party now head one of Karzai's ministries and have a significant presence in the ranks of government. In a country that still lacks organized political parties, Hizb-e-Islami could become a major political force again.

Weak link in the insurgency

Similarly, retired Hizb-e-Islami commanders remain scattered across northern Afghanistan. Reconciling with the group could keep that dry tinder from joining an insurgency that's finding greater footing in the region.

Still, analysts warn against seeing peace with Hekmatyar as a major blow to insurgent strength.

"He doesn't contribute much to the insurgency," Rustom Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan told the Monitor last month. "His foot soldiers have joined the mainstream Taliban, so they are now fighting under the banner of the Taliban."

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