Afghan warlord changes his conditions for peace with Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A notorious Afghan warlord who lives in hiding has dropped a key condition for ending his war of more than 40 years with Kabul, an associate said Tuesday.

According to Amin Karim, an official of the Hezb-i-Islami Party, the party’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is no longer demanding that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar is designated a “global terrorist” by the United States and blacklisted by the United Nations. He is widely believed to live in Pakistan, though his supporters say he is in Afghanistan.

Last year, he briefly came out of the shadows to set his conditions for peace that included the withdrawal of foreign forces.

Karim told The Associated Press that for Hekmatyar, the “departure of foreign troops is not a condition, it is a goal,” and added that the warlord’s followers “have no conditions, we have principles.”

The move by Hekmatyar, whose current following is hard to gauge, is likely as much an overture to the government of President Ashraf Ghani as it is an attempt to stay relevant on the Afghan political scene.

Hekmatyar has led an extreme life; his mujahedeen followers were responsible for the deaths of thousands during the devastating Afghan civil war. He is said to have offered himself as interlocutor to former President Hamid Karzai in 2008, but was deflected amid concerns over his extremist reputation and human rights abuses. The last known attack carried out by his militant group was in 2013, when at least 15 people, including six American soldiers, were killed in central Kabul.

Ghani came to power in 2014 promising to end the 15-year war with the Taliban. A diplomatic offensive aimed at getting Pakistan to bring the Taliban into peace talks has so far failed, and this year is expected to be as brutal on the battlefield as 2015, when 11,000 civilians were killed or wounded, according to U.N. figures.

Afghan officials have said that a peace deal with Hekmatyar, a former prime minister of Afghanistan, could be useful in potentially convincing Taliban commanders on the battlefield to join the peace process.

Hekmatyar’s move to drop the condition on foreign forces could also raise questions among Taliban leaders and commanders about their own goals. Like Hekmatyar and his followers, the Taliban have long said they are waging their insurgency to expel all foreign forces from Afghanistan.

“We are convinced that if Hezb-i-Islami achieves and signs a peace agreement with the government, it will open the door for the other groups, including the Taliban,” Karim said. “If we achieve agreement, then there will be no more reason for the Taliban to fight.”

Hekmatyar’s representatives are to hold a third round of discussions with Kabul’s High Peace Council this week, an Afghan official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the talks.

If and after an agreement is signed between Hezb-i-Islami and the government, Hekmatyar could visit Kabul for the first time since he fled the capital as the Taliban swept into power in 1996, the official added.

Ghani’s office welcomed Hekmatyar’s move and said his cooperation with peace efforts could lead to a reduction of violence. However, peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, which were hosted by Islamabad, fell apart last year and chances for their resumption have grown increasingly dim.

If the warlord does join the peace process, Hezb-i-Islami would be “the first group to walk through the gate” Ghani had opened, a brief statement from the president’s office said.

In Kabul, Karim is leading a small delegation of his party in discussions with senior officials that started in secret last summer. He said those discussions were launched with the expectation that all foreign troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of 2016.

Karim said his party still sees that as a goal. However, President Barack Obama last year decided to maintain current troop levels at 9,800 through this year in a largely non-combat role.

Hekmatyar is not seeking a power-sharing deal with Kabul, Karim insisted. “We are not asking for power, we are asking for peace and for principles,” he said.