Warlord splits with Taliban, hints at talks with government

Associated Press • Mar 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM

KARACHI, Pakistan - A veteran Afghan warlord wanted by the U.S. distanced himself from the Taliban and gave his strongest indication yet that he was open to talks with embattled President Hamid Karzai.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's overtures are unlikely to blunt a Taliban offensive against NATO troops in southern Afghanistan. But security experts said they could herald a new phase in efforts to reconcile the country's warring factions.

In a video response to questions submitted by The Associated Press, 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 has launched an offensive.

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 Afghan 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.

"You must have realized that attacking Afghanistan and Iraq was a historic mistake," Hekmatyar said, addressing Bush. "You do not have any other option but to take out your forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and give the Iraqis and Afghans the right to live their own way."

However, his tone was more conciliatory toward both the West and Karzai than in past messages. He gave his most explicit offer yet to negotiate with 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," said Hekmatyar, wearing spectacles and a black turban.

"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 the March 5 edition of the Germany weekly Der Spiegel, Karzai said he intends to conduct talks with the more pragmatically minded of the insurgents' supporters. He cited Hekmatyar and fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar. "Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are welcome, if it's about securing peace and stability in Afghanistan; however, the people must pass judgment on their atrocities," Karzai is quoted as telling the magazine. Karzai has repeatedly offered amnesty to former militants willing to reconcile with the government. It is unclear, however, if that invitation - which few have taken up - extends to Hekmatyar, or whether it has the support of Afghanistan's Western backers. Neither Karzai's office nor Taliban spokesmen could be reached for comment late Thursday. Analysts urged caution, however. Seth Jones, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said he was skeptical of Hekmatyar's motives. "It's an odd time for Hekmatyar to jump ship," said Jones. "His organization has been so deeply involved and successful in attacks. To suddenly disassociate himself from a strong Taliban and speak to Karzai is really an interesting development. I'd be shocked if he actually means it." Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed. "On the one hand, this could be a major blow to the Taliban. But there are deep concerns for the Afghan government about reeling Hekmatyar in. He's on the list of the worst terrorists in the country, and if Karzai takes him in, it would be seen as a sign of weakness by the Afghan people," Markey said. "I'd be leery of anything Hekmatyar says. He's switched sides so many times through the years." Steven Simon, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested Hekmatyar may simply be trying to deflect criticism from himself and his former backer, the Pakistani government, which is under increasing pressure by the U.S. to step up its anti-terror efforts. 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. Many Hezb-i Islami commanders defected to the Taliban in the 1990s, and both groups find their main support among Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. Hekmatyar opposed the U.S.-led invasion in late 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. In the video, Hekmatyar called Hezb-i Islami "the only party in Afghanistan which has the capability to form a strong, stable Islamic government." 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. Patrick Cronin, a South Asia expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said Hekmatyar may be positioning himself as a successor to Karzai. "Politically, what we see here is the jockeying for future power in a country where Karzai's political support is still high, but diminished, and eventually is a fading asset," Cronin said. In a recording aired on Pakistani television in January, Hekmatyar claimed his fighters had helped al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri escape intense U.S. bombardment in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains five years earlier. In the latest video, he said his men had helped the al-Qaida leaders "because they were the guests of the Afghan nation," but that Hezb-i Islami had never had any organizational links with al-Qaida. Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general working as a defense analyst, said Hekmatyar's influence has eroded but his knowledge of militant networks in the region could help him negotiate a comeback. "He must be one of those who has some idea where Osama is," Masood said. "He's not a man of conscience." Hekmatyar defended the use of suicide attacks, but said his group had "felt no need" to use an Iraq-style tactic increasingly favored by the Taliban. The United States considers Hekmatyar a terrorist, and a CIA drone fired a missile at him near Kabul in 2002, but missed. Hekmatyar said American forces had twice come close to him on the ground. Once, U.S. special forces approached along the road leading to a house where he was staying, forcing him to flee up a mountainside. "I was just two hundreds yards up from them. They reached my neighbor's house," he said. "I was watching them and I could hear their voices. But they searched and left with mission un-accomplished and I came back to my place in peace." The second time, Hekmatyar said he camped for two nights in the mountains to avoid a U.S. military patrol. He did not say when or where the encounters occurred. "Since then, I am sorry that we were not in a position to fight. Had we had enough men and weapons, there was no better chance to beat them. Not a single American of that group could have survived," he said.

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