Karzai holds peace meeting with militant group

Posted at 03/23/10 7:31 AM

KABUL – President Hamid Karzai has met delegates from Afghanistan's second-biggest militant group and is studying their peace proposals, his spokesman said Monday, boosting hopes for reconciliation.

Hezb-e-Islami is headed by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is blacklisted as a terrorist by the United Nations and United States. Both accuse him of carrying out attacks alongside the Taliban and of being allied to Al-Qaeda.

Karzai has been pursuing peace talks in the hope of ending the crippling Taliban-led insurgency -- now in its ninth year -- while the United States implements a troop surge designed to weaken the militants.

It came as the UN Security Council hailed the Afghan government's renewed bid to foster dialogue with Taliban elements who "renounce violence, break ties with terrorists and accept the Afghan constitution."

Hezb-e-Islami, known in the 1980s as a major anti-Soviet resistance force, had said it would only hold peace talks with Karzai's government once all foreign forces had quit Afghan soil. The latest move could be seen as an early, though easy, success in the president's reconciliation efforts.

"A meeting between the Hezb-e-Islami delegation and the president took place a couple of days back," said Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar.

"They brought with them a peace plan, a proposal, and the president is studying it," he told AFP, adding the president had yet to respond to the plan.

A peace agreement with the group would not be of huge significance, experts said, as Hekmatyar, a former prime minister, has been making overtures to the Afghan political establishment for some time.

But it could remove an irritant as Karzai pursues the bigger players behind the insurgency, the Haqqani network and the Taliban's ruling council, known as the Quetta shura, both reportedly based in Pakistan.

Hezb-e-Islami spokesman Haroon Zarghon told AFP the delegation of senior members handed Karzai a 15-point document they hoped would form the basis of peace talks.

Of the 15 points, "one of them is to set a clear timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces and another the formation of an interim administration," Zarghon said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Hezb-e-Islami was passive during the 1996-2001 Taliban rule, but regrouped to launch a separate armed resistance, sharing many of the Taliban's goals, after the latter were overthrown in the US-led 2001 invasion.

There has been little mention until now of Hezb-e-Islami, largely because it is seen as having ties with Al-Qaeda and Karzai has made it clear he will not negotiate with allies of the movement controlled by Osama bin Laden.

It is also seen as the "low hanging fruit" of reconciliation, which has yet to begin in earnest, a Western diplomat in Kabul said.

"Hekmatyar has been willing to come into the fold for a long time. He's old, he's tired and he misses being at the centre of things," he said, adding the warlord's links with lawmakers and provincial councilors could prove useful in garnering support for peace efforts.

"And it gives Karzai an early success in the eyes of the international community, which will want to see progress, though less so for Afghans and the other insurgent groups."

The United States and NATO are boosting their troop numbers in Afghanistan to a peak of 150,000 as efforts to eradicate the Taliban threat intensify, particularly in the militants' southern strongholds.

NATO announced Monday two of its soldiers had been killed by bombs in southern Afghanistan. Separately, the Canadian military announced the death of a soldier wounded in Afghanistan two weeks ago.

Another Karzai spokesman confirmed at the weekend the president had been in talks with the Taliban before a series of recent reported arrests of senior leaders, which he described as a setback for peace efforts.

Siamak Hirawi said the arrests -- which reportedly took place in Pakistan and included Taliban battlefield strategist and second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar -- had a "negative impact" on such efforts.

Analysts say Karzai is walking a knife edge in efforts to bring peace, balancing the interests of his neighbours and the Western countries supporting him.

The former UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has said that arrests in Pakistan stopped the secret channel of communications with Taliban figures.

But the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has hailed the Taliban arrests in Pakistan as being good for the military effort.