- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2010

KABUL | President Hamid Karzai and representatives of a major militant group wrapped up a first round of peace talks Tuesday, reaching no final deal but pledging to continue a dialogue that if successful would split the ranks of the Taliban-led insurgency.

The talks with Hizb-i-Islami were the first public face-to-face negotiations in the capital between Mr. Karzai and representatives of an insurgent group. Hizb-i-Islami, led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is far smaller than the Taliban but is active in at least four provinces of eastern Afghanistan and parts of the north.

Its defection from the insurgency would be a coup for Mr. Karzai and could encourage some members of the Taliban to explore their own peace deals.

The talks come ahead of a three-day peace conference the Afghan government is hosting in the first week of May in Kabul. Hizb-i-Islami negotiators said they had not yet decided whether the group would be represented at the gathering.

A member of the delegation, Qaribur Rahman Saeed, characterized the two-hour working lunch with Mr. Karzai as “positive for both sides.” It was the second meeting the delegation had with Mr. Karzai at the presidential palace since it arrived in early March.

The delegation plans to leave later this week and submit a report to Mr. Hekmatyar. Members said that would take 15 to 20 days because Mr. Hekmatyar is in hiding.

Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the government expressed hope for future talks, but said it was too early to judge progress. He also made clear there were some conditions in Hizb-i-Islami’s 15-point peace plan that were unacceptable, including the rapid withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops.

“There are some values like the constitution of Afghanistan, respecting human rights and some other issues that the Afghan people and the Afghan government are not willing to deal on,” Mr. Omar said. He added the government would not agree to the departure of foreign troops until Afghan forces were ready to defend the country.

The plan calls for foreign forces to begin withdrawing in July — a year ahead of President Obama’s desired deadline to begin a pullout. The delegation acknowledged this was a sticking point, but said the group was flexible on the issue.

Under tight security, the five-member negotiating team has shuttled around Kabul having private meetings with Mr. Karzai, Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, top leaders of parliament, former members of the Taliban, and a few members of the international community, including Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan.

Delegates did not meet with U.S. officials in Kabul, but Mr. Saeed hinted the U.S. was not standing on the sidelines, saying “we have channels in the U.S. through our representatives.”

Mr. Hekmatyar, who is in his early 60s, was a major recipient of U.S. military aid during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s but fell out of favor with Washington because of his role in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. The U.S. government declared Mr. Hekmatyar a “global terrorist” in February 2003, saying he participated in and supported terror acts committed by al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Unless that tag is removed, the designation could complicate any move by the U.S. to sign off on a deal.

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