When Vygaudas Ušackas became the European Union's ambassador to Afghanistan and traveled there recently, one of Afghanistan's main Islamic insurgent groups – Hizb-e-Islami – sent a welcoming delegation.
While the move may seem odd for a group known for fighting foreign forces, it is part of what appears to be an increasing effort by Hizb-e-Islami to position itself for a place within the political system. As the Afghan government struggles to make peace with insurgent groups and incorporate them into the system, this is a big deal: The cooperation of Hizb-e-Islami could be a major boost to the lagging peace process.
"[Hizb-e-Islami] is trying to get the support of the people. They realize that the people of Afghanistan are tired of the war and now they want to get involved in political and economic issues," says Rafi Wardak, a member of the provincial council in Wardak Province.
In what looks like an about-face from its battlefield mission, Hizb-e-Islami has also taken a number of positions seemingly in line with many of the Afghan government's objectives. It has publicly and carefully supported women's education, condemned attacks on reconstruction projects, and ordered its fighters to avoid the use of roadside bombs and other tactics that can inadvertently result in civilian casualties.
Taking a stand on policies
The group's leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar even touched on foreign-policy matters when he came out in support of protesters in Egypt whom he described as "trying to eradicate the reign of their corrupt and debased rulers."
Then, in a more ambitious move, the group recently declared its support for a gas pipeline planned to go from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. When completed, the pipeline will be critical to the Afghan economy.
Days after the project was announced, Hizb-e-Islami issued a statement saying it had ordered its forces to protect it and denounced anyone trying to stop the project as "an enemy of their own nation" – voicing no threat of violence only disapproval.
The pipeline will pass through a number of areas outside the control of Hizb-e-Islami, so the announcement may be more symbolic than it is practical. But the Taliban and other groups made no public comments about the project, though because of popular support for the project, the Taliban are unlikely to attack it.
"If they do anything they will lose support and be hated by the majority of the country," says Abdul Qadir Munsef, an independent analyst in Kabul.
Hizb-e-Islami still requires some concessions to bring its members to the table with the High Peace Council, it says, including a foreign troop pullout this summer, and a number of Afghans question why the group isn't already working with the government if it's serious about joining the political process.
"Most Afghans think that the current platforms or strategy of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are not for the betterment of Afghanistan. They think he should join the government under the law and then he can reach his goals," says Hakim Basharat, an independent analyst.
Indeed, Mr. Hekmatyar has a "colorful" past. Despite his purported support of women's education, in the late 1960s as a student leader he encouraged men to throw acid on the face of women who did not completely cover their heads.
During the war against Russia, American support made him one of the best funded mujahideen leaders in Afghanistan, and yet at the peak of the conflict in 1985 he refused to shake hands with then President Ronald Reagan, and he is now battling the United States.
Hizb-e-Islami has yet to be politically tested as the ruling party of Afghanistan, an important point for Afghans. Without a proven track record, the group may struggle to gain the trust of Afghans.
Still, as the Afghan government and international forces try to get militant groups to the peace table, Hizb-e-Islami appears to be the most willing to come and work within the existing government, says Moulabi Attaullah Loudin, a member of the High Peace Council.
The council, fraught with fits and starts since it was set up in the fall to de-escalate violence, appears to see the group's ambitions as a chance to get started.