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Hard-Line Militant Group Wants 'Power-Sharing' With Kabul In Exchange For Peace

Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is seen on a video grab.
Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is seen on a video grab.

Afghanistan has managed to bring one of the country's most notorious militant leaders to the negotiating table after he dropped demands that all foreign forces leave the country.

Now Kabul must consider whether Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's offer to end a 15-year insurgency campaign in exchange for involvement in the government is a workable proposition.

Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e Islami militant group and sworn Islamic State supporter, is among the most radical of the hard-line militants in Afghanistan. But the Afghan government opened discussions with a delegation sent by Hekmatyar on March 17 in the hope that a negotiated settlement could convince other insurgent groups, such as the Taliban, to join the peace process.

The long-sought discussions with Hekmatyar mark a first for Kabul, and according to sources close to the negotiations, there is optimism that a deal can be struck.

Any deal would come with a price, however. "At this stage, Hezb-e Islami is seeking to become a government partner by seeking positions in civil and security institutions," an Afghan official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the ongoing talks.

The official said the government was "listening and evaluating the practicality of their demands," but that a final decision had not been made.

The official said Kabul "can only do so much," noting that the room for power-sharing is limited following the 2014 presidential election. The poll, which failed to determine a clear winner, led to a power-sharing agreement between the top two finishers. The current national-unity government was formed as a result, with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the helm.

'Global Terrorist'

A member of the Afghan High Peace Council, the presidentially appointed body tasked with negotiating with insurgent groups, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 21 that a deal with Hezb-e Islami would be finalized within "two or three days," although he gave no indication what the terms might be.

There are obvious concerns that come with negotiating with a figure like Hekmatyar.

He founded Hezb-e Islami in the mid-70s, and the group went on to become one of the main mujahedin factions that fought against the Red Army after the Soviet invasion in 1979, and subsequently fought in the civil war for control of Kabul after Moscow pulled out.

The group was accused by rights groups of gross human rights violations during the civil war, and has carried out deadly attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Hekmatyar was seen as trying to rally Taliban troops against coalition forces, and his alleged attempts to ally with both that group and Al-Qaeda led the U.S. State Department to designate him a "global terrorist" in 2003.

Despite the designation and his continued fight against Afghan forces, Kabul reached out to Hekmatyar as early as 2008 in the hope of working out a peace deal.

Meanwhile, Hekmatyar had a complicated relationship with the Taliban, voicing support for Mullah Mohammad Omar while coordinating attacks with the Taliban spiritual leader against foreign and Afghan forces. But at the same time, Hezb-e Islami clashed with the Taliban, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, over territory.

In July, Hekmatyar upped the ante by calling on his followers to support the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in its fight against the Taliban.

As recently as this March, Washington slapped sanctions against two of Hezb-e Islami's top explosives experts.

Softening Stance

Direct talks between Kabul and Hezb-e Islami were made possible because of Hekmatyar's softening stance, a second government official close to the current talks told RFE/RL.

In their previous efforts to draw Hekmatyar to the negotiation table, U.S. and Afghan officials had been put off by his strict preconditions -- including the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and the removal of Hezb-e Islami from U.S. and UN terrorist blacklists.

"In the past, Hezb-e Islami had unrealistic demands that could not be met," the official said on condition of anonymity. "The latest demands are mostly about power-sharing and positions. Foreign troop withdrawal is not a precondition anymore."

The 68-year-old Hekmatyar briefly served as prime minister in Kabul during the civil war in the 1990s, and became infamous for launching rocket attacks on the capital.

Hezb-e Islami, the second-largest insurgent group operating in Afghanistan after the Taliban, has become increasingly fractured over the past two decades. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, members of the group's political wing joined the government in Kabul, while much of the military wing led by Hekmatyar rejected peace.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul expressed openness to Kabul's negotiation efforts in comments received by RFE/RL on March 23.

"We welcome the announcement that Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin is ready to meet with the Afghan government and encourage the group to make peace with the Afghan people," the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. "As President Obama affirmed, an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process is the surest way to end violence and ensure the lasting stability of Afghanistan and the region."

Persuading The Taliban

Observers have suggested that Hekmatyar's participation in peace talks could persuade the Taliban to join the process because of his past links with the militants.

There is also optimism in Kabul that allowing Hekmatyar to enter into the government fold could create a domino effect, encouraging other hard-line militants to lay down their weapons.

A four-nation group has been trying to set up direct peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. The so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group -- which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States -- said it expected a meeting in March.

The Taliban has flatly rejected holding direct talks with Kabul, however, and has not changed its preconditions for joining the peace process, including its own demand that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

Some Taliban delegates met in Islamabad during the summer of 2015 with Afghan officials for an initial round of peace talks. But the fledgling peace process was derailed by the revelation that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been dead for more than two years.

A power struggle between rival Taliban factions then emerged, with rival field commanders expressing loyalty to different leaders.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.