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Karzai-Hekmatyar parleys motivated by Americans

Sunday 28 March 2010

LAHORE: The recent unprecedented meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the representative of the Hezb-e-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was actually motivated by some senior American government officials as a part of the Obama administration’s exit strategy from Afghanistan. The move is also meant to pressurize the Afghan Taliban into holding talks with the Karzai regime before it is too late for them.

According to well informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke is behind the move which was aimed at start communicating with the Hizb-e-Islami leadership despite the fact that the HI chief Hekmatyar, who is also a former prime minister of Afghanistan, is a declared terrorist with a $25 million price on his head announced by the FBI. Hekmatyar’s fighters are responsible for large numbers of attacks against the Afghan and US-led Allied Forces, mainly in the northeast of the country. President Hamid Karzai had met the Hizb-e-Islami delegation on February 22, 2010. Although the talks appeared to be preliminary, the public acknowledgment of the meeting was a significant milestone at a time when Karzai is seeking to woo fighters off the battlefield and Washington mounts a surge of extra combat troops before planning to start a pullout in 2011.

While Hekmatyar’s spokesman Haroon Zarghun has described the talks as “very very positive”, Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omer said the meeting was a major breakthrough during which the HI delegation presented a 15-point peace plan to end the bloody conflict. Led by the former Afghan premier Qutbuddin Helal, the delegation included Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law of the group’s fugitive leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Following the meeting, the Hezb-e-Islami spokesman Haroun Zarghoun said the delegation brought a peace plan as the basis for negotiations. The main point of the plan was the withdrawal of all foreign forces from July this year, which is to be completed within six months. The plan also called for the current government to serve for six months and then stand down for elections to be held next year.

According to Haroon Zarghun, the 15-point national rescue plan floated by the Hiz envisaged withdrawal of foreign forces, to begin on July 1, 2010 and to be completed within six months. President Obama has set July 1, 2011, as the date for a drawdown of US forces. Hezb-e-Islami has brought forward the pullout date by a year. The HI peace plan accepts continuation of the Karzai government and parliament to be watched over by a seven-member national security council. Thereafter, it envisages a neutral caretaker interim government for six months to hold elections for the office of the president and a parliament with powers to review the Afghan constitution. The plan stops short of accepting the Afghan constitution, but is pretty close to meeting some of Washington’s main demands. It also says that there will be no foreign fighter in Afghanistan after the departure of foreign forces, but does not provide any details as to how it will be done. The US State Department has welcomed the Kabul meeting between Karzai and the representatives of Hekmatyar, saying that any groups involved in talks must renounce violence and support for the insurgency, live in accordance with the Afghan constitution, and sever any ties with al-Qaeda or other extremist organizations.

In another major shift, the Hizb delegation also met its former arch rivals from the Northern Alliance, including Vice-President Marshal Mohammad Qasim Haheem, Speaker of the Afghan parliament Younas Qanuni and leader of Ittehad-d-Islami Prof Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf. The group also had a meeting with former Taliban leaders, now in Kabul, including their former foreign minister Wakeel Ahmad Mutawakkil, Arsala Rehmani and former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdus Salam Zaeef who had been arrested by Pakistan and turned over to the United States, has been vociferously opposing any role for Pakistan in negotiations for the future set-up of Afghanistan.

According to well placed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, the recent melting of ice between Hamid Karzai and Hekmatyar is the result of back channel diplomacy being carried out by Richard Holbrooke who had held several rounds of secret talks with Daud Abidi, an emissary of Hekmatyar. Considered a longtime lieutenant of the HI chief, Daud is an Afghan-American based in California, a prominent businessman, social worker and a former representative of the HIA. The sources say the talks between the two were a landmark move in the US’ stated aim of involving militant groups in ending the conflict in Afghanistan.

At the same time, however, there are those who say the choice of Hekmatyar also indicates just how desperate the United States is in finding an escape route from the escalating crisis in Afghanistan. For years, the decision makers in CIA have branded Hekmatyar an irreconcilable militant. The fact, however, is that Hizb-e-Islami still enjoys standing in Afghanistan and literally controls the strategically crucial province of Kapisa. The Americans military has already conceded that the HI forces have emerged since last year as the most important component of anti-Western coalition resistance in the wear torn Afghanistan. While most of Taliban-led resistance is situated near the Pak-Afghan borders, insurgent forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hold complete command over Kapisa province’s Tagab valley, hardly 30 kilometers north of Kabul.

The HIA, founded by Hekmatyar, was one of the most effective mujahideen groups to fight the Soviet invasion during the 1980s. Pakistan always wanted him to run Afghanistan for Islamabad but he was never trusted by the fellow Pashtun militias and kept out of Kabul. Hekmatyar had fought his Afghan rivals mercilessly and hardly ever compromised. Isolated in the extreme, he went and stayed in Iran to survive, and returned from there in 2001 in time to, as he boasted to the BBC, “Help Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora after the US-led Allied Forces invaded Afghanistan”. As things stand, he himself is rumoured to be flitting between Kapisa and the trouble stricken North Waziristan tribal region in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan with some important contacts within the Pakistani establishment.

The Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Party of Afghanistan, or HIA), sidelined from Afghan politics since the fall of the mujahideen regime to the Taliban in the mid-1990s, had re-emerged last year as an aggressive militant group, claiming responsibility for many bloody attacks against the Allied and NATO Forces and the administration of President Hamid Karzai. Led by 62-year-old Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a charismatic engineer, former premier and mujahideen commander once favored by Washington—the HIA had even claimed responsibility for an attack on a military parade in Kabul from which President Hamid Karzai escaped unharmed.

Although Hamid Karzai may have serious reservations over the 15-point peace plan floated by the Hizb-e-Islami delegates during their meeting with Karzai, the diplomatic circles say the Afghan president is under grave American pressure to seriously consider the proposal for early elections. Therefore, political analysts say that Hizb-e-Islami, whose political wing has offices all over Afghanistan and representation in Afghan parliament, has a great future in Afghan politics being the only credible Pashtun strongman untainted by al-Qaeda and possibly capable of taking on the Afghan Taliban as well if the ongoing American efforts to woo them failed. The Afghan Taliban led by Mullah mohammad Omar have already refused to join any peace talks until foreign troops leave Afghanistan, but Hezb-e-Islami leaders are optimistic that the hardline militia could be brought around to accept the plan if it provided a cut-off date for withdrawal of foreign forces.

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