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.
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.
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.
Members of the group blame Washington for hamstringing negotiations by demurring on troop withdrawal. “The Americans are not ready for talks. That’s why we continue to fight,” says Haroun Zarghun, a close associate of Hekmatyar’s, speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location.
Prospects for a deal
US officials counter that Hizb-i-Islami has not effectively demonstrated its intent to cut links with Al Qaeda, and that withdrawing forces beginning this summer is premature. Hekmatyar and his group have also been accused of a long list of human rights violations.
Some of the terms may also be unacceptable to the Afghan government. “We do not accept any condition that is against the Afghan constitution,” says Siamak Herawi, a spokesman for the President Karzai. “Elections can only be held every five years, so their proposal [for new elections] is against the constitution and not acceptable.”
Some Western and Afghan officials say they welcome reconciliation with Hizb-i-Islami but are wary of any government role for Hekmatyar, whose forces notoriously shelled Kabul in the 1990s, killing thousands, despite his being prime minister at the time.
Hekmatyar denies any personal aspirations in extending the olive branch. “I just want freedom for my country,” he says. “I don’t want anything for myself, nor have we asked for anything for me or Hizb-i-Islami in our proposal.”
Observers say that Hekmatyar and fellow leaders of the group might be tired of fighting – as one of Afghanistan’s oldest insurgent groups, they have been on the battlefield first against the Russians, then against other Afghan warlords, and now against the Americans, for nearly 30 years.
Some Afghan officials say that the group has hit the extent of its reach – in recent months, it’s fought several turf battles with the Taliban. In the latest blow, in May a prominent Hizb-i-Islami religious cleric was gunned down in eastern Kunar Province, most likely by the Taliban.
Even if a peace deal eventually materializes, a major concern is that it would not significantly dampen violence, since the Taliban is the dominant force in most of the country. It is unlikely that Hizb-i-Islami would have the ability to influence the Taliban. “There will be no effect on us if Hizb-i-Islami talks with the government,” says Qari Ziaur Rahman, a prominent Taliban commander who is active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking by phone from Kunar.
“Hizb has not been effective in the last eight years, they haven’t had any major successes in these years,” he adds, hinting at the growing tensions between the two groups.
But others insist that getting the group to lay down its weapons will mark a significant step toward peace. “They are weaker than the Taliban, but they are still quite popular in many areas,” says Wahid Muzjda, a Kabul-based policy analyst. “They can still cause problems. That’s why everyone is taking them seriously.”