Peace deal expected with armed Afghan group

Kabul, May 15

Afghanistan is expected to finalise a peace deal with a notorious militant group in the coming days, in what could be a template for ending the 15-year war with the Taliban, a government official and a representative of the militant group said yesterday.

The deal is partly symbolic as the group in question, Hezb-i-Islami, has been largely inactive for years, but it marks a breakthrough for President Ashraf Ghani, who has made little progress in reviving peace talks with the far more powerful Taliban.

Under the 25-point agreement, Hezb-i-Islami would end its war against the government, commit to respecting the Afghan constitution and cease all contact with other insurgents. In return its members would receive amnesty and its prisoners would be released.

Ataul Rahman Saleem, deputy head of the High Peace Council — a government body charged with negotiating an end to the war — told the AP that the deal could be completed today, after two years of negotiations. A senior representative of Hezb-i-Islami, Amin Karim, also said he expected Ghani to approve the final version of the agreement today.

Hezb-i-Islami is led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces killed thousands of people in Kabul during the 1992-1996 civil war. He is believed to be in Pakistan, though Karim has said he is in an unspecified location in Afghanistan. He could soon return to Kabul to sign a formal peace deal and take up residence.

Hekmatyar, in his late 60s, is designated a “global terrorist” by the United States and blacklisted by the United Nations. The agreement obliges the Afghan government to work toward lifting those restrictions.

The Obama administration has welcomed the progress towards a peace agreement and said it supports an Afghan-led resolution to the conflict.

Hezb-i-Islami should be part of the negotiations along with all other insurgent groups, a senior Obama administration official said in a statement.

US officials declined to say publicly whether the US would consider lifting the terrorist designation subjecting the group to sanctions if the agreement is reached.

Ghani’s spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, would not comment directly on the Hezb-i-Islami deal, telling reporters yesterday that “the doors are open for peace talks” to all groups.

Ghani is due to return to Kabul today from an official visit to London. Karim said he expected the president to give his final approval to the agreement soon after his return.

Negotiations began in July 2014, Karim said, when Hekmatyar received a letter from Ghani, who was then campaigning to become president. Ghani pointed out that one of Hekmatyar’s key conditions for peace — the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan — was about to be met.

“That was the beginning,” Karim said. But progress stalled after President Barack Obama decided against a complete withdrawal and instead to leave a 10,000-strong, largely non-combat force in the country through the end of 2016.

Earlier this year, Hekmatyar began referring to his demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops as a “goal” rather than a condition, clearing the way for talks to continue.

The political wing of Hezb-i-Islami has no relationship with Hekmatyar, and its members endeavour to address grassroots concerns rather than engage in high-level politics.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the deal with Hezb-i-Islami would have “no impact” on the overall peace process.