KHOST (Reuters) - U.S. and Afghan officials have shown flexibility in secret talks with one of Afghanistan’s most notorious insurgent factions in the hope it will help end the country’s long war, a negotiator for the outlawed Hizb-i-Islami group said on Monday.
Ghairat Baheer, the son-in-law of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, told Reuters that he had in recent weeks held exploratory talks with CIA director David Petraeus, the former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Despite Hekmatyar’s branding as a “terrorist” by the U.S. State Department eight years ago for supporting Taliban and al Qaeda attacks, Baheer said he had also met face-to-face in the last three weeks with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Kabul, as well as current commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. General John Allen.
“We had exchanges of views with the people and it was productive. We are fully open to any peace efforts and our aim is to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Baheer said by phone from neighboring Pakistan.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kabul declined to confirm any American involvement in the talks.
“We have a broad range of contacts across Afghanistan and the region to support Afghan reconciliation efforts. I’m not going to get into the details of those contacts,” he said in response to Baheer’s claims.
The United States has been holding exploratory talks with the Taliban — seen as the best chance of ending the war that began with the U.S.-led invasion of the country 10 years ago - for more than a year.
Hizb-i-Islami, which means Islamic Party, is a radical militant group which shares some of the Taliban’s anti-foreigner, anti-government aims, and has widespread national support.
Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, is a fierce rival of the Taliban’s one-eyed leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and became a hero to many Afghans while leading mujahideen fighters against the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, forces led by Hekmatyar opposed to the government of then-president Burhanuddin Rabbani took part in fighting in Kabul which is thought to have killed tens of thousands. Hekmatyar quit Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and his whereabouts have been unclear since then.
Hizb-i-Islami claims to have thousands of fighters opposing U.S. and international forces based mainly in Afghanistan’s restive east, bordering Pakistan, and in the north.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at the weekend he had met with a delegation from Hizb-i-Islami for talks about broadening the scope of nascent peace talks with the Taliban, a tactic which U.S. officials acknowledge is vital for any peace process to take root.
The Taliban weeks ago offered to open a political office in Qatar to smooth the way for peace talks with the United States and other countries, in return for the release of five Taliban from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay.
Marc Grossman, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said on Sunday that no decision had been taken on their release — billed by the Taliban as a confidence-building measure — and the Taliban had first to renounce militancy.
Baheer, who was himself held in U.S. detention at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, for six years until his 2008 release said he had “noticed flexibility” on both the U.S. and Afghan side on his demands for a more representative government in Kabul when the war ends.
“We are not after power. We have presented our plan. We are optimistic that the results of our meeting comes productive,” he said.
Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Sanjeev Miglani