Afghan Taliban fighters. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: Anxious to accelerate peace moves, top-level US officials have held talks with a representative of an insurgent movement led by a former Afghan prime minister who has been branded a terrorist by Washington, a relative of the leader says.

Dr Ghairat Baheer, a representative and son-in-law of longtime Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, told The Associated Press this week that he had met separately with David Petraeus, former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan who is now CIA director, and had face-to-face discussions earlier this month with US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and US Marine Gen. John Allen, currently the top commander in the country.

Baheer, who was released in 2008 after six years in US detention at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, described his talks with US officials as nascent and exploratory. Yet, Baheer said the discussions show that the US knows that in addition to getting the blessing of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar — a bitter rival of Hekmatyar even though both are fighting international troops — any peace deal would have to be supported by Hekmatyar, who has thousands of fighters and followers primarily in the north and east.

Hizb-i-Islami, which means Islamic party, has had ties to Al-Qaeda but in 2010 floated a 15-point peace plan during informal meetings with the Afghan government in Kabul. At the time, however, US officials refused to see the party's delegation.

"Hizb-i-Islami is a reality that no one can ignore," Baheer said during an interview last week at his spacious home in a posh suburb of Islamabad. "For a while, the United States and the Kabul government tried not to give so much importance to Hizb-i-Islami, but now they have come to the conclusion that they cannot make it without Hizb-i-Islami."

In Washington, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden would not confirm that such meetings took place but said the US was maintaining "a range of contacts in support of an Afghan-led reconciliation process".

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the high-level meetings, said Petraeus last met with Baheer in July 2011 when he was still commanding Nato forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus took over as CIA director in September.

On Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he also had met recently with Hizb-i-Islami representatives. Baheer said he attended those meetings but added that the party considers the Afghan government corrupt and lacking legitimacy.

Karzai's announcement appeared intended to bolster his position as the key player in the search for peace. The US repeatedly has said that formal negotiations must be Afghan-led, but Karzai has complained that his government has not been directly involved in recent preliminary talks with Taliban representatives and plans for setting up a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Baheer said his meeting with Petraeus, whom he described as a "very humble, polite person," was marked by a few rounds of verbal sparring with each boasting a battlefield strength that the other dismissed as exaggerated.

"There was a psychological war in these first meetings," he said.

Baheer said Crocker and Allen tried to persuade Hizb-i-Islami to become part of Afghanistan's political network, accept the Afghan security forces and embrace the nation's current constitution. He said Hizb-i-Islami was ready to accept the security forces and the constitution, but wants a multiparty commission established to review and revise the charter.

"We are willing to make compromises," said Baheer. "We already have said we will accept the Afghan army and the police."

He said Hizb-i-Islami envisioned a multiparty government in post-war Afghanistan. At the same time, the group wants all US and Nato forces, including military trainers, to leave Afghanistan, he said.

"The presence of any foreign forces will be not acceptable to us under any cover," he said. "Daily, there is another American killing of civilians. The longer they stay, the more they are hated by the Afghan people."

Overtures to Hekmatyar's group show not only the degree of US interest in pursuing a settlement but also the complexity of putting together an agreement acceptable to all sides in factious Afghanistan. The US formally declared Hekmatyar a "global terrorist" in 2003 because of alleged links to Al-Qaeda and froze all assets which he may have in the United States.

Hekmatyar, who is in his mid-60s, was among the major recipients of US aid during the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s. He and other anti-Soviet commanders swept into Kabul in 1992 and ousted the pro-Soviet government, only to turn against one another in a bitter and bloody power struggle that destroyed vast sections of the Afghan capital and killed an estimated 50,000 civilians before the Taliban seized the city.

A bitter rival of Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar fled to Iran and remained there until the Taliban were ousted in the 2001 US-led invasion. He declared war on foreign troops in his country and rebuilt his military forces, which by 2008 had become a major threat to the US-led coalition.

Contacts with Hekmatyar's group as well as parallel efforts to negotiate with the Taliban have taken on new urgency following the Nato decision to withdraw foreign combat forces, transfer security responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014 and bring an end to the unpopular war, which is increasingly seen as a drain on the financially strapped Western countries that provide most of the troops.

On Sunday, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, completed two days of meetings about the peace process with Karzai and other Afghan officials. Grossman, who was to travel to Qatar on Monday, urged the Taliban to issue a "clear statement" against international terrorism and affirm their commitment to the peace process "to end the armed conflict in Afghanistan".

US officials also have reached out to the Pakistan-based Haqqani militant network to test its interest in peace talks. Haqqani fighters, the second largest insurgent group after the Taliban, have been blamed for most of the high-profile attacks in the heart of the Afghan capital.



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