Karzai Talks to the Enemy, but Is the U.S. On Board?

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Jim Young / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama inspects a guard of honor with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul on March 28, 2010

For the past eight years, Afghan rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has been a phantom presence on the edges of the Afghan insurgency. His Hezb-i-Islami militia — said to number between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters, and which operates independently of the Taliban — has carried out scores of ambushes on coalition forces in the northeastern mountains of Afghanistan and has claimed credit for two attempts on the life of President Hamid Karzai.

But now, it seems, the veteran warlord wants to come in from the cold — as a peace broker between Karzai and the Taliban. Hekmatyar last week dispatched a 10-man delegation to Kabul to name an offer: If NATO agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan starting by this summer, Hezb-i-Islami would cease hostilities and urge the Taliban to do the same. The mid-2010 withdrawal demand is flexible, according to delegation spokesman Mohammad Daoud Abedi, who told journalists in Kabul that the deadline "is a start. This is not the word of the Koran that we cannot change it."

During President Barack Obama's surprise visit to Kabul on Sunday, he was briefed by Karzai on his efforts to bring insurgents like Hekmatyar into truce talks. The White House says it favors "reintegration" of mid-level commanders but has expressed doubt over Karzai's offer to extend a peace accord to senior leaders of the insurgency.

One impetus for the new peace effort may have come earlier this month, when a group of 70 Hezb-i-Islami fighters in the northern province of Baghlan found themselves on the losing end of a gunfight with the Taliban. Besieged, Hekmatyar's men opted to surrender to nearby government troops as a way to save themselves. That incident, however, underscores how abysmal Hekmatyar's relations are with the Taliban and casts doubt over his ability to deliver Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. No sooner was the new peace plan announced in Kabul than did the Taliban vigorously reject it. "What we want is the expulsion of foreign occupation forces unconditionally," a Taliban spokesman told the New York Times.

Hekmatyar earned his fearsome reputation first in the fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and then by shelling Kabul into rubble in a fight with rival mujahedin commanders. Having been forced into exile by the Taliban after they took over the country in 1996, he made common cause with them after the U.S. invasion of late 2001. The Taliban have always disliked Hekmatyar, and their loathing is shared by the many Kabul residents who saw thousands of innocents killed by his militia's repeated rocket barrages on the capital in his power struggle with rival mujahedin commanders.

There may be more to Hekmatyar's outreach than simply a whipping at the hands of the Taliban in Baghlan. The warlord has kept close ties with Pakistan spy agency the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) ever since he was the main recipient of the CIA and Saudi aid that was channeled by the ISI to anti-Soviet Afghan rebels in the 1980s. And despite the fact that since 2002, the U.S. has considered Hekmatyar a terrorist, the Hezb-i-Islami chief operates more or less openly inside Pakistan. He maintains houses for his family in Peshawar and Islamabad, and recruits his fighters from Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar, all under the watchful eye of the ISI.

Afghan officials suspect that Hekmatyar made his peace overture to Karzai only after getting a nod from the Pakistani military establishment. Pakistani officials are keen to demonstrate to the Obama Administration that reconciliation between Karzai and the insurgents can succeed, but only if Pakistan makes it happen. That may also explain the recent arrests of 14 senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan — according to the U.N. and Afghan officials in Kabul, some of those held by Pakistan had been engaged in secret talks, and were more open to a peace deal than their hard-core brethren inside the movement's war council.

Pakistan is also letting the Obama Administration know that it is willing to exercise its leverage over the Afghan insurgents — but at a price, first and foremost in restoring the Pakistani influence in Kabul that was lost when the U.S. ousted the Taliban. Just before a high-level Pakistan delegation set off for Washington, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi declared, "We've done our bit ... We've delivered. [Now you] start delivering."

Washington dutifully obliged. At the end of two days of high-level talks with top Obama Administration officials, the Pakistani delegation came away with a promise that the U.S. would hasten delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and unmanned reconnaissance drone aircraft. But U.S. officials stopped short of agreeing to a key Pakistani demand: that the U.S. recognize Pakistan as a nuclear power, giving it parity with its rival India, which secured a similar accord from the Bush Administration. Washington officials were reluctant to comply because of Pakistan's having secretly sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

In Kabul, officials are suspicious of Islamabad's long-delayed help in catching the Taliban. A senior official confided to TIME that Karzai, whose relations with the U.S. ambassador and military commanders have been frosty of late, is worried that the U.S. and other NATO countries may be in such haste to end the war that they will agree to a pact with Pakistan that will put Afghanistan firmly back in Pakistan's orbit.