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Afghanistan warlord Hekmatyar shuns peace jirga but offers own deal

Afghanistan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other insurgent leaders have dismissed a three-day peace jirga, or council, in Kabul, which opened Wednesday to rocket attacks and an attempted suicide bombing.

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A leading Afghan insurgent says his group is ready for a peace deal, as more than a thousand delegates gathered in Kabul Wednesday to discuss ways to quell the violence in this war-ravaged country.

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Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-i-Islami, one of Afghanistan’s three main insurgent factions, told the Monitor in an e-mail interview that his group decided to open talks with the Afghan government after US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders mentioned the possibility of starting to withdraw troops as early as July 2011.

“They said that the chaos in Afghanistan does not have a military solution. They said they could not defeat the opposition to this regime by fighting,” Mr. Hekmatyar wrote from an undisclosed location. “Because of that, we gave a complete and logical proposal” for peace to the government.

High-ranking officials with Hizb-i-Islami, including the group’s spokesman, verified that the responses were Hekmatyar’s.

The prospects of a deal with Hekmatyar are still far off, given that some of his demands – such as foreign troop withdrawal this year and early elections – are unlikely to be accepted by the US and the Afghan government. And any deal is unlikely to sway the Taliban, the strongest of the insurgent groups, to themselves come to the table.

Still, though smaller than the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami has an active presence in large parts of the country’s north and east. It has carried out many attacks against Afghan and Western forces, including a 2008 assault near Kabul that killed 10 French soldiers.

Peace jirga attacked

This week’s peace jirga, where nearly 1,600 notable Afghans have assembled to debate strategies for reaching out to insurgents, did not extend invitations to any militant group. In turn, Hizb-i-Islami issued a statement dismissing the meeting because “the participants consist of persons who are state favorites.” A Taliban spokesman also condemned the jirga, calling it a "show" and not a serious initiative.

Indeed, the jirga’s opening was met with attacks – three rockets landed near the area of the meetings, and a gun battle erupted with a suspected suicide bomber as the jirga started.

High-level talks

Contacts between the Hizb-i-Islami and the Afghan government picked up early this year, Afghan officials say. A high-ranking delegation visited Kabul in March – and met with several senior politicians, including President Hamid Karzai. They delivered a 15-point peace plan that included several controversial demands.

The proposal said that foreign troops must begin withdrawing by July and early elections held, according to a copy seen by the Monitor. Some analysts believe that leaders of Hizb-i-Islami, which remains popular among segments of Pashtun society, think they can win such an election.

According to the proposal, the government would continue in its current form after the troops left and the newly elected parliament would review the Constitution.

The group also hints that it would prevent Al Qaeda from operating in the country. “In our proposal, we said that after the foreign troops leave, there will be no foreign fighters in Afghanistan,” Hekmatyar wrote, referring to Al Qaeda, although analysts doubt if he could deliver on such a promise.