The Afghan government is expected to finalize a peace deal with a notorious militant insurgent group within days, an official and a representative of the group said on Saturday.
The deal is partially symbolic as the group in question, Hezb-i-Islami, has been essentially inactive for years. However it provides a much-needed success for the beleaguered administration of President Ashraf Ghani and potential template for ending Kabul's 15-year war with the still active and far more dangerous Taliban.
Under the terms of the 25-point agreement, a draft of which has been seen by the AP, the group would end its war against Kabul, commit to respecting the Afghan constitution, and cease all contact with other armed, anti-government groups. In return its members would receive amnesty and its prisoners in Afghan jails would be released.
Ataul Rahman Saleem, deputy head of Kabul's High Peace Council, told The Associated Press that the deal with the armed wing of Hezb-i-Islami could be completed on Sunday, after two years of negotiations. A senior representative of Hezb-i-Islami, Amin Karim, also said he expected President Ashraf Ghani to approve the final version of the agreement on Sunday.
Hezb-i-Islami is led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, best known for killing thousands of people in Kabul during the 1992-1996 civil war. He is believed to be in Pakistan, though Karim has said he is in an unspecified location in Afghanistan. He could soon return to Kabul to sign a formal peace deal and take up residence.
Hekmatyar, in his late 60s, is designated a "global terrorist" by the United States and blacklisted by the United Nations along with Osama bin Laden. The agreement obliges the Afghan government to work to have the restrictions lifted.
Hezb-i-Islami has only intermittently been active on the battlefield for some time; its last known major attack was in 2013, when at least 15 people, including six American soldiers, were killed in Kabul.
Ghani's administration is still trying to strike a peace deal with the country's primary insurgent group, the Taliban. Those efforts to open a dialogue, using the Pakistani government as an intermediary, have largely failed.
Ghani is due to return to Kabul Sunday from an official visit to London. Karim said he expected the president to give his final approval to the content of the truce agreement with Hezb-i-Islami soon after his return.
Negotiations began in July 2014, Karim said, when Hekmatyar received a letter from Ghani, then campaigning to become president, noting that one of Hekmatyar's key conditions for peace — the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan — was about to be met.
"That was the beginning," Karim said.
Progress stalled after President Barack Obama decided to leave a 10,000-strong force in the country through to the end of 2016 until Hekmatyar dropped the condition and renamed it "a goal" earlier this year.
Karim and a number of Afghan officials have said that a peace agreement with Hekmatyar's group could encourage Taliban fighters to end their participation in the war, and eventually lead to a full-blown peace. Others, however, regard Hekmatyar as politically irrelevant and lacking any real influence.
Spokesmen for the Taliban were not immediately available for comment.
The agreement covers a wide range of points, including a guarantee of equality between men and women and respect for the Afghan constitution, both points of contention with the Taliban, whose 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan was characterized by extremist attitudes that cloistered women in their houses and mandated strict religious education, to the exclusion of almost all else, for boys.
Brokered under the auspices of the High Peace Council — a government body charged with negotiating an end to almost 40 years of war — the agreement allows Hezb-i-Islami to operate as a bona fide political party and participate in elections at every level. It gives legal immunity for "all past political and military proceedings" by Hezb-i-Islami members and mandates the release of all prisoners within three months. Karim said there are about 2,000 Hezb-i-Islami prisoners in jails across Afghanistan.
The Afghan government undertakes to provide housing and security for Hekmatyar at two or three residences in places of his choosing.
One point that could attract opposition from sections of society that fear Ghani's government is prepared to cede ground to the Taliban in return for peace — including any rollback in rights for women — is a clause that gives Hekmatyar a "consultant" role on "important political and national decisions" facing the government.
For its part, Hezbi-i-Islami pledges to end the war, dissolve all its military organizations and function as an "active political party."