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Afghan President Hamid Karzai held an unprecedented meeting Monday with representatives of a major Taliban-linked militant group, boosting his outreach to insurgency leaders to end the eight-year war.
Less certain is whether the talks with the weakened Hizb-i-Islami faction represent a game-changer in the conflict, given its demand to rewrite the Afghan constitution and force a quick exit of foreign forces.
It is the first time that high-ranking representatives of the group, led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have traveled to Kabul to discuss peace. The reconciliation offer from Hekmatyar contrasts with his reputation as a ruthless extremist.
Hekmatyar's power has waned over the years and he commands far fewer fighters than the Taliban. Nevertheless, Hizb-i-Islami is very active in at least four provinces of eastern Afghanistan and parts of the north. His defection from the insurgency would be a coup for Karzai and could encourage some Taliban commanders to explore their own peace deals.
Talking with the Taliban and other insurgent groups is gaining traction in Afghanistan, even as thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements are streaming in to reverse the insurgents' momentum. The talks have not stemmed the fighting. NATO reported three service members were killed Monday in separate explosions in southern Afghanistan.
Hekmatyar, who is in his 60s, was a major recipient of U.S. military aid during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s but fell out of favor with Washington because of his role in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. The U.S. government declared Hekmatyar a "global terrorist" in February 2003, saying he participated in and supported terror acts committed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Unless that tag is removed, the designation could complicate any move by the U.S. to sign off on a deal, even though in recent years Hekmatyar has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the Karzai government.
A spokesman for Hekmatyar said the delegation had lunch with Karzai at the presidential palace and planned to meet with him again.
Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the president would study the peace plan. "We're not in a position to comment on the concepts that they provided," he said.
However, Maqbul Ahmad, a deputy to a Karzai adviser who met with the delegation, said the two sides had resolved about 60 percent of the issues being negotiated. He predicted an agreement could be reached before the end of the week.
Minister of Economy Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, leader of a political party that split off from Hekmatyar, said contacts that had been under way for months were apparently moving forward, or the delegation would not have made the trip to Kabul.
"I welcome this effort. I hope that this kind of negotiations continues and that we will witness a delegation from the Taliban coming to start negotiations," Arghandiwal said.
The Hizb-i-Islami delegation is led by Qutbudin Halal, who served in the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani in the 1990s, and includes a Hekmatyar son-in-law. Three members of the group arrived in Kabul from Europe on March 6, according to a member of the group who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. Two others arrived in the past few days.
Besides Karzai, the delegation has met with Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim; top members of parliament; the president's half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai; presidential advisers; and jihadi leaders. Harun Zarghun, chief spokesman for Hizb-i-Islami, said the delegation also hoped to meet with Taliban leaders somewhere in Afghanistan.
The delegation member said the group was determined not to leave the capital without a deal. He said the group will work to gain the confidence of the Afghan government, then will talk with Afghanistan's international partners.
But some of the demands might be hard for Karzai and his international partners to accept.
The 15-point plan that a Hizb-i-Islami official e-mailed to The Associated Press was described as an offer of cooperation "to save our homeland from the ongoing painful condition" and permanently end war.
The top demand, repeated throughout the plan, is for foreign forces to begin withdrawing in July -- a year ahead of President Barack Obama's desired deadline to begin a pullout.
After foreign troops leave Afghanistan, the group said presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections should be held in the spring of 2011. The group said the newly elected parliament would have the right to rework the constitution. Karzai has in the past agreed to negotiate with those that embrace the current constitution.
"Any internal and external elements who are opposed to this agreement and insist on fighting, we all will jointly deal with the war mongers to save our homeland from their curse," the plan states.
While the delegation said it hoped to talk with international officials in Kabul, U.S. military and diplomatic officials said no meetings were planned.
"The U.S. does support the Afghan government's interest in reaching out to members of insurgent groups that cease support to insurgency, live in accordance with the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and have no ties to al-Qaida or terrorist organizations that share its objectives," U.S. spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
(This version CORRECTS spelling to Ahmad graf 10)