AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN

Afghan peace talks get a boost with Taliban rival signing on

An insurgent group that has sometimes fought alongside the Taliban said Sunday that it would take part in peace negotiations with the government of Afghanistan.

The announcement by the military wing of Hezb-i Islami, led by former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, comes weeks after the Taliban denied reports that it would engage in direct talks with the Afghan government.

Hezb-i Islami, Afghanistan’s second largest insurgent group after the Taliban, said in a statement that it was “prepared to participate in the talks to show to the nation it wants peace.”

The peace bid is being led by the four-nation group of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States and is seen as the best chance in years for a negotiated settlement to end a conflict now in its 15th year.

But representatives of the four countries have failed to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table, raising questions about the effectiveness of the effort. The participation of Hezb-i Islami, which had signaled a willingness to negotiate before, is unlikely to change the Taliban's calculations, particularly as the Taliban has racked up military successes against government forces in recent months.

Though Hezb-i Islami said it accepted Kabul’s calls for direct talks, it remained critical of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which includes 9,800 troops focused on advising Afghan forces.

“The U.S. insists on war and bloodshed in Afghanistan, and some circles within the [United States] government see the peace initiative as a threat,” the group's statement read.

The statement comes days after the State Department designated two of the group's members as “global terrorists” and offered rewards leading to their capture. They were identified as Abdullah Nowbahar and Abdul Saboor, described as explosives experts who took part in a September 2012 bombing that killed 12 people near the Kabul airport.

The group claimed that the attack, which targeted a minivan transporting workers of a U.S.-contracted aviation company, was carried out by a female suicide bomber. The use of female suicide bombers is extremely rare in Afghanistan.

The State Department said Saboor also was responsible for a May 2013 suicide attack in Kabul that killed eight Afghans and four American civilians.

The group rarely claims responsibility for attacks anymore, and the strength of its forces is unclear. But it has taken a hostile stance against the Taliban, which Hekmatyar opposed during the group’s six-year rule over Afghanistan in the late 1990s before forming alliances with some Taliban commanders following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Hekmatyar has a long history with the United States. As a former commander of Afghan mujahedin forces who fought off the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Hekmatyar received financial and military assistance from the U.S. government, which viewed him as an ally despite his often hostile anti-American rhetoric.

In 1985, Hekmatyar was among a delegation of mujahedin commanders who were invited to the White House to meet with then-President Ronald Reagan. Hekmatyar traveled to the United States but refused to see Reagan.

He is currently believed to be in Pakistan. Last year, pictures of his son, Habib-ur-Rahman, flanked by Pakistani police, caused an uproar in Afghanistan, where many still believe that the Pakistani military is supporting Afghan insurgents.

Latifi is a special correspondent.

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