KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that he recently met with a peace delegation from an insurgent faction of the Islamic nationalist group Hezb-i-Islami that he hoped would have "productive results."
Hizb-i-Islami, or "Islamic party," is a hardline faction led by the notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former U.S. ally who turned against the United States after its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and is now on Washington's list of terrorists. His group seeks a unified Islamic state and is not tribe-oriented like the Taliban. It operates mainly in northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, from which it attacks U.S. forces.
"Recently we had negotiations with a delegation from Hizb-i-Islami," Karzai told an Afghan parliament session. "We are hopeful that these negotiations continue and for sake of peace, we reach productive results."
Karzai said this hours before he met with American special representative Marc Grossman to discuss the peace process. Grossman, the White House's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Kabul on Saturday.
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"I am pleased to be in Kabul to consult with the government of Afghanistan. The United States stands ready to assist in any way we can an Afghan-led reconciliation process to find a peaceful end to this conflict," Grossman said in a statement.
Karzai's comments appeared to signal that he would seek a greater role for his government in peace talks that the United States is hoping to jump-start with the Taliban. The U.S. effort appeared to get a boost recently with the announcement by the Taliban leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, that it would open an office in Qatar as a preliminary step toward negotiations to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Karzai has voiced concern over being marginalized in the peace process, which U.S. officials acknowledge is at a very early stage. Karzai had expressed a preference that the Taliban would choose Saudi Arabia or Turkey for its offices.
"The Afghan nation owns the peace and negotiation process — no country or group can snatch this right from the Afghan people," said Karzai.
The president's opponents charged that his comments reflected how his government had allowed the United States and other foreign powers to take the lead in a peace process about which many Afghans are skeptical.
"Karzai has been sidelined in peace talks with the Taliban because they don't trust the government," said Fazel Sacharaki, spokesman for National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA), one the main political opponents of the Afghan government.
"People support any negotiations which lead to peace and stability in Afghanistan, but our main concern is if the president brokers a deal with Hizb-i-Islami to share power," Sancharaki said.
Hedayat Ahmadzai, a Kabul University student, said that people like Hekmatyar or Mullah Omar consider themselves leaders and will not be satisfied if Karzai tries to strike a deal to bring them into his government.
"Mullah Omar has ruled this country for many years," Ahmadzai said, referring to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. "If he just stops fighting and stays home, that will be a miracle."
Analysts also noted that there are many different insurgent groups fighting against Afghan forces and the U.S.-led coaltion that operate separately from Mullah Omar's Taliban group. If Hizb-i-Islami is convinced to stop fighting, they said, some insurgents might lay down their arms in one corner of the country, but that wouldn't mean the end of the war.
(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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