- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan — An Afghan warlord wanted by the United States distanced himself from the Taliban and gave his strongest indication yet that he was open to talks with embattled President Hamid Karzai.

In a video response to questions submitted by the Associated Press, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar indicated that his Hezb-i-Islami group contacted Taliban leaders sometime in 2003 and agreed to wage a joint jihad, or holy war, against American troops.

“The jihad went into high gear, but later it gradually went down as certain elements among the Taliban rejected the idea of a joint struggle against the aggressor,” Hekmatyar said, framed against a white wall in the video received Thursday.

“It was not a good move by the Taliban to disassociate themselves from the joint struggle,” he added. “Presently we have no contact with the Taliban.”

The Taliban has vowed to intensify its resistance this spring, and says it has thousands of forces deployed in southern Afghanistan, where NATO this week began its biggest offensive yet.

There has been no indication that Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, which is more active in eastern Afghanistan, would also ramp up its attacks.

Hekmatyar, who once served as Afghanistan’s prime minister, said his forces were now mounting only restricted operations, partly due to a lack of resources. But he insisted he had a large pool of fighters who could sustain a long struggle, and sent a defiant message to President Bush that the United States had no hope of defeating the insurgency.

However, his tone was more conciliatory toward both the West and Mr. Karzai than in past messages. He gave his most explicit offer yet to negotiate with Mr. Karzai, though he suggested there must be a cease-fire before talks, a condition unlikely to be accepted by the U.S.-backed government.

“We say that dialogue can only be fruitful if the aggressors truly allow the Kabul government to halt the fighting, negotiate with the mujahedeen and honor what Kabul and the resistance decide,” Hekmatyar said.

“This is the prime and basic demand of the Afghan nation, and if such a conducive environment could be provided, we can go for dialogue with Karzai,” he said.

According to Monday’s edition of the German weekly Der Spiegel, Mr. Karzai said he intends to conduct talks with the more pragmatic-minded of the insurgents’ supporters. He cited Hekmatyar and fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Hezb-i-Islami was a central player in the CIA-backed mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the civil war that followed, but it was sidelined by the Taliban militia’s rise to power in the mid-1990s.

Hekmatyar opposed the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that pushed the Taliban from power. His followers have since waged a campaign of violence against American and allied forces. His exact whereabouts have been unknown since he returned from exile in Iran in 2002.

The AP’s questions were submitted through an intermediary three weeks ago, and there was no indication of where or exactly when the video was made.

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