UN envoy holds first talks with Taliban-linked warlord Hekmatyar in Afghanistan

Thursday's meeting between the top UN envoy to Afghanistan and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is seen as a breakthrough. But who the Taliban-linked warlord speaks for is unclear.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Newscom/File
The UN envoy to Afghanistan met with Taliban-linked warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, on Thursday.

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The United Nations’ top official in Afghanistan for the first time held reconciliation talks with representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Taliban-linked warlord, on Thursday. The breakthrough is important for keeping talks going, experts say, but is unlikely to result in immediate measures for peace.

Thursday’s meeting, which took place in the capital, Kabul, appears to be the second instance of Hekmatyar’s group, Hezb-i-Islam, making good on their offer to hold talks. Earlier this week, delegates of the militia met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is pushing for reconciliation on a national scale. Taken together, the meetings have helped solidify the notion that talks with the Taliban, while still highly complicated and rebuffed on many sides, are moving ahead.

The gathering in Kabul Thursday seems to have been little more than a meet and greet, with few details made public. The UN official who hosted Hekmatyar’s group, Staffan de Mistura, released a statement shortly afterward saying, “Their visit to Kabul and the ongoing discussions with Afghan authorities further underscored the importance of Afghan-led dialogue in order to bring stability to this country,” reports the Associated Press.

The United States is cautiously backing talks of this kind, but feels the timing is still too early. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently told Congress that the Taliban first need to be weakened by the Obama administration’s recent surge of 30,000 troops to the South before Taliban leaders will be amenable to coming to the table, reports Reuters. On Thursday, The Christian Science Monitor reported, Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared before Senate appropriators to request $33 billion in additional funding to pay for the war in Afghanistan

Talks with the Taliban remain fraught with complications and controversy. Because the Taliban operates in splintered groups straddling two countries, who precisely will talk for them remains unclear. Taliban spokesmen in Afghanistan, for example, have repeatedly told the press that they will never hold talks. And as the Monitor recently reported, talks with Hekmatyar may not yield substantive results.

Perhaps the main sticking point in reconciliation remains the issue of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Some Taliban factions demand an immediate removal of all foreign troops as a pre-condition to any talks. Heymatyar’s group recently indicated that they are open to negotiating a timetable for US-led withdrawal, the Monitor reported.

Experts are divided over whether the withdrawal of US troops will only help propel the Taliban, rather than tamping them down. On Thursday the Wall Street Journal offered a sanguine prognosis: when the US Army recently abandoned some of its positions in the Kamdesh district, along the Pakistan border, the Taliban quickly filed the void. But instead of growing in strength, the Taliban found themselves rebuked by the people of Kamdesh, particularly with the help of an elder tied to Hekmatiyar’s group, Hezb-i-Islam.

The Journal reports:

The tale of what happens when these troops leave, as already experienced in Kamdesh, offers hope that a removal of the foreign forces in large parts of the country can often weaken, rather than strengthen, the Taliban.

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