Afghan Militant Leader's Motives Under Scrutiny

Insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar recently sent advisers to talk with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about a possible peace deal. But many people in Afghanistan don't trust Hekmatyar. They see him as a ruthless war criminal, and even his allies question his motives.

Insurgent leader and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar recently sent his son-in-law and other close advisers to Kabul to see whether he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai might strike a peace deal.

Such a deal would eliminate a key group from the mix of militants battling U.S., NATO and Afghan forces. It would also strengthen the hand of the Afghan political party Hekmatyar founded decades ago.

Hekmatyar's plan is expected to be discussed at a much-touted peace jirga, or council, that Karzai is hosting for local leaders and tribal elders from across Afghanistan at the end of April.

But many people in Afghanistan don't trust Hekmatyar. They see him as a ruthless war criminal whose fighters attacked Kabul with hundreds of missiles during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Even his allies question his motives for coming forward now.

Optimism Among Supporters

On a recent day, Afghan schoolboys fidget in line as a classmate recites an Islamic prayer outside their madrassa, or religious school, in the city of Pul-e-Khumri. Headmaster Abdullah Nahzatiyar shoots them a patient smile.

He says young people such as these are helping strengthen the Hizb-i-Islami, or Party of Islam, movement in Baghlan, a fertile farming province north of Kabul where party members or sympathizers already dominate local government posts.

The political party shares its name and roots with a militant group that is active in Baghlan and elsewhere in northern and eastern Afghanistan. Its fighters answer to the party's former leader, Hekmatyar, who is believed to be hiding near the Pakistani town of Peshawar.

Some in Afghanistan liken the Hizb-i-Islami political wing to Sinn Fein during the conflict in Northern Ireland. Like Sinn Fein, Hizb-i-Islami party members claim they have no ties to any militants.

Hekmatyar's envoys are in Kabul shopping around a 15-point peace plan, a move Nahzatiyar says he supports. The envoys have already met with Karzai and other Afghan and U.N. officials.

"I'm optimistic that these negotiations will bear fruit. If they are successful, it will improve the security situation across Afghanistan," Nahzatiyar says.

Concerns About Side-Switching

In Kabul, many Afghans don't share his optimism. Haroun Mir heads the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

For one, Mir says, Hekmatyar may not have as much control over his fighters as he once did, given that first the Soviets, then the Taliban and now the NATO-led coalition have whittled away at his power and his militant group.

"The difficulty would be that probably al-Qaida and the Taliban might recruit among Hizb-i-Islami sympathizers even though Hekmatyar might join in a peace solution with Kabul," Mir says.

Such side-switching is already happening, such as in Baghlan where Hizb-i-Islami and Taliban militants battled earlier this month. Squabbles over weapons, turf and who got to levy taxes from farmers sparked several days of firefights between the two factions.

Mohammad Dayan was among dozens of Hizb-i-Islami fighters who subsequently surrendered to government forces.

"We ran out of ammunition. At the same time, the Taliban received reinforcements. So we split up. Some of us were killed or wounded. Some of us joined with the Taliban and the rest, surrendered to the government," Dayan says.

Interviewed at a gas station, the former Hizb-i-Islami commander who led 30 fighters says he has offered to join Afghanistan's security forces. He says the government has yet to take him up on his offer.

Asked if joining the Afghan government meant years of fighting had been meaningless, Dayan responds: "Jihad is never a waste of time."

That is probably not the kind of reconciliation talk Afghanistan's Western partners want to hear.

Western Suspicions

On a trip to Kabul Sunday, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that it's too soon for a political deal with the Taliban. He said NATO and Afghan government forces need to make more gains on the battlefield to ensure negotiations are fruitful.

Yet he and other U.S. officials have said little about the Afghan government's ongoing talks with envoys sent by Hekmatyar, whom the United States backed when he fought against the Soviets in the 1980s.

In the past, however, U.S. officials have expressed reservations about him being removed from a United Nations blacklist. That's in part because his fighters have brutally attacked coalition forces during the eight-year-old insurgency in Afghanistan, including one assault on French troops in 2008 in Surobi, a district east of Kabul, which left 10 dead.

So why is the insurgent leader looking to make peace now?

In Baghlan province, Hizb-i-Islami leader Nahzatiyar says he suspects that Hekmatyar is hoping to be swept into office by the party faithful.

But Candace Rondeaux, the Kabul-based, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, says she believes his plans are more subtle. She says Hekmatyar wants off the blacklist and that afterward he will quietly plot his return to power.

"Does that mean we'll see him march back into Kabul tomorrow? I don't really think so," Rondeaux says. "I think a more likely deal to be made is that he goes on vacation somewhere on a nice, faraway island in perhaps the Emirates or somewhere else, and somebody else comes to take his place."

Signs Of New Flexibility

Daoud Sultanzoi, an Afghan lawmaker who met with Hekmatyar's delegation several times, says the envoys the insurgent leader has sent appear much more flexible than in the past.

"It's not the same type of Hizb-i-Islami I met during the jihad era. These people were very rigid in those days. But I didn't see that in them this time. They are broken," he says.

Sultanzoi, who was a college classmate of Hekmatyar's, says the wording of the peace proposal leads him to believe the insurgent leader is willing to at least discuss some of the plan's more controversial points — such as a six-month timetable for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan or that a caretaker government take over until a parliamentary and presidential election can be held.

"So these are indications to me that he definitely wants to separate himself from the Taliban's rigid position and if that shows pragmatism or flexibility, then that is an advantage for him over the Taliban in my opinion," Sultanzoi says.

The Taliban, meanwhile, has expressed reservations about his proposal. In a statement e-mailed to reporters last week, it warned Afghans not to "fall into the trap."

But analyst and former Taliban official Waheed Mujda says most of the demands in Hekmatyar's proposal are the same as the Taliban's. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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