- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

A militant group responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan has rejoined peace talks with President Hamid Karzai’s government, and four other factions followed after Afghan security forces crushed an attack by terrorists in Kabul earlier this week.

Hizb-i-Islami, led by former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, returned to reconciliation talks after walking out last month.

Mr. Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, Ghairat Baheer, led a delegation of militants in a meeting with Mr. Karzai in Kabul this week.

“They came with a proposal for the peace negotiations,” said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, secretary-general of the High Peace Council, tasked by the Afghan government with leading the process.

The militants demanded free, fair and transparent elections; a level political playing field; an anti-corruption effort; and the rule of law, Mr. Stanekzai told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

“These are some very common issues that are in the interests of the Afghan people,” he said.

The militants are showing “more flexibility” and “more realism,” he added.

The Hizb-i-Islami delegation also sought clarification on the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and reform of the Afghan Constitution.

President Obama wants to pull all U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Mr. Hekmatyar declared jihad against foreign forces in December 2002. The United States listed him as a “specially designated global terrorist” the next year. Hizb-i-Islami has ties to the Taliban, al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Its main area of operation is northeastern Afghanistan.

Since 2001, Hizb-i-Islami “has alternated between appalling attacks on U.S. forces and then Gulbuddin, himself, suing for peace with the Afghan government,” said Joshua Foust of the American Security Project.

“If I had to characterize them, I’d call them the little insurgents who could,” he added.

Karzai prompts process

Four other militant factions joined peace talks after Afghan security forces crushed an attack by terrorists in the heart of Kabul, Mr. Stanekzai said.

Thirty-six of the 37 terrorists were killed in a fierce battle that started Sunday and carried over into Monday.

The Karzai government has struggled to take the lead in a peace process that has been dominated by the United States.

Interactions with the militants often have been shrouded in secrecy. However, in an unusual move, Mr. Karzai’s office released a statement and photograph of the president meeting with the Hizb-e-Islami delegation this week.

U.S. officials say they want the process to be Afghan-led, but the Taliban have refused to talk with the Karzai government and derisively refer to it as a Western puppet.

Michael Semple of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School played down the significance of Hizb-i-Islami’s participation in the peace talks.

“I doubt that the current [Hizb-i-Islami] delegation has the capacity to affect either Kabul politics or the insurgency,” Mr. Semple said.

“The Afghan Taliban movement is by far the most significant insurgent actor, and any process without its full involvement is a sideshow,” he added.

Mr. Stanekzai himself was seriously wounded when a Taliban suicide bomber assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and chairman of the High Peace Council in Kabul in September.

Last month, Hizb-i-Islami followed the Taliban’s lead by suspending peace talks with the United States.

Pakistan’s role

The Taliban’s decision was motivated in part by the Obama administration’s insistence that the Karzai government play a lead role in the talks. The militants also were angered by a delay in Washington to act on their demand that five high-value detainees be released from U.S. military detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Afghan government, the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami have had sporadic and uncoordinated contacts since 2004, but terms of engagement were never spelled out properly.

Pakistan’s role is key to any peace process in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Afghan officials say Pakistan provides material support and safe havens to the terrorists. The Pakistan-based Haqqani Network is perceived to be a lethal threat to the peace process.

U.S. officials blamed the Haqqani Network for the coordinated attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan this week.

Afghan officials say the Haqqani Network - led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin - is a “gang of criminals” with which their government will not negotiate.

“They are criminals, there is no doubt about that,” Mr. Stanekzai said.

“Once you have some reconciliation with the leadership of the Taliban, there will be no room for people like Haqqani because it will … remove the support that [the Haqqani Network] gets from the community in the remote tribal areas,” he added.

“The important issue is our cooperation with Pakistan, and if we get to that, there will be no Haqqani Network.”

However, Mr. Stanekzai said there is no evidence that Pakistan is willing to stop supporting the Haqqanis.

The Afghan government has issued a “specific demarche” to Pakistan that it support the peace process, allow safe passage for militants who want to participate in the negotiations and release Taliban leaders who can play significant roles in the process, he added.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is the most prominent Taliban leader detained in Pakistan. He was arrested by Pakistan’s ISI in Karachi in February 2010. According to some sources, the ISI was upset that Mr. Baradar was freelancing peace deals with the Karzai government without taking Pakistani interests into consideration.

The Obama and Karzai administrations have laid down three conditions for the peace talks: The militants must renounce ties to al Qaeda, respect the Afghan Constitution and disarm.

The militants have been reluctant to embrace a constitution that protects the rights of women.

Women’s and human rights groups oppose any changes to the constitution that will endanger their freedoms.

Mr. Stanekzai said the Afghan government had told the militants that any changes to the constitution would have to be decided by the Afghan people through a constitutional method.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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