The battle raged for two days, rocket and mortar duels hopscotching across the flat farmlands, gunfire rattling through market villages. At first the combatants seemed equally matched, but when one side rushed in reinforcements, the other’s lines broke and its fighters scattered. When the smoke and dust had cleared, dozens from the two sides lay dead.
Warfare is an everyday event across Afghanistan, but the confrontation this month on the fertile plains of Baghlan province, in the country’s north, marked a sharp departure from battlefield norms. Rather than pitting Western and Afghan troops against the Taliban or other militants, this was insurgent-on-insurgent fighting -- signaling a schism that could hasten or hamper the first significant peace moves in more than eight years of conflict.
The Taliban and its allies are the West’s main adversaries in Afghanistan. But smaller militant factions such as Hezb-i-Islami, led by veteran commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are likely to play a pivotal role in any Afghan endgame.
It was Hekmatyar’s loyalists who squared off against the Taliban in Baghlan in early March, fighting for turf and lucrative extortion rackets, including the “taxing” of local farmers.
With Taliban forces poised to overrun them, nearly 50 of Hekmatyar’s men sought protection under the government rather than risk being captured by the Taliban. Others managed to slip away.
“We fought hard, but we ran out of ammunition, and there were too many of them,” said Mohammad Diyan, a Hezb-i-Islami field commander who was one of those to surrender to Afghan authorities. “There was no choice.”
Like so many seemingly local disputes in Afghanistan, this one carried potentially far-reaching implications.
The Obama administration has expressed hopes that this year’s U.S. military buildup, if successful, will push insurgents toward a political settlement, paving the way for an eventual Western withdrawal. So far, most of the attention has centered on the question of whether Taliban rank-and-file fighters can be wooed away from the battlefield. But last week it was Hezb-i-Islami that seized the initiative.
Hekmatyar dispatched a senior delegation to the capital, Kabul, for his militia’s first publicly acknowledged talks with President Hamid Karzai -- preempting, in the view of some, the indirect contacts that have been taking place for months between the Taliban and the Karzai administration.
It was a characteristically bold move. Hekmatyar, now in his early 60s, has for decades threaded a deft path through Afghanistan’s violent geopolitical labyrinth, switching sides whenever it suited his purposes, reinventing himself along with the changing times.
Over the years, he has been a CIA asset, a feared mujahedin commander in the war against the Soviets, a wily politician who rose to the rank of prime minister, a warlord notorious for raining rockets on his own capital during the country’s savage civil war.
More recently, his trademark long beard gone gray-white and grizzled, Hekmatyar has been a sometime ally of both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, fielding fighters to attack U.S. and other Western troops. Those alliances, though often strained, earned him a place on a U.S. blacklist of global terrorists.
During their days in the capital, Hekmatyar’s envoys were warmly received in the presidential palace, even though he allegedly once tried to have Karzai killed. Delegation members also held their first publicly disclosed talks with a senior Western diplomat: Staffan de Mistura, the Swedish head of the U.N. mission to Afghanistan.
Human rights groups looked on in dismay, pointing to Hekmatyar’s culpability in thousands of Afghan civilian deaths. But American diplomats and military officials, while not taking part in the talks, struck a low-key stance, characterizing political dialogue with any insurgents willing to lay down their weapons as positive.
Among longtime Hekmatyar watchers, opinion about his true aims is divided. Almost no one believes his motives are straightforward; those who know him well call opportunism his salient trait.
“He is a dishonest person, and very egocentric,” said Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir, who believes Hekmatyar is trying to engineer a political comeback as his faction’s military influence wanes. “But he is also a very smart guy.”
Lawmaker Daoud Sultanzoy, a college classmate of Hekmatyar’s, recalls him as charismatic but rigidly fundamentalist in his religious views.
“He doesn’t do anything that isn’t calculated -- he holds his cards very close,” said Sultanzoy, who sat in on some of the Kabul meetings. He theorized that Hekmatyar, in entering talks, is trying by whatever means to stay a step ahead of the Taliban.
“Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban have different goals -- there have been problems between them from the beginning,” said Diyan, the Hezb-i-Islami commander who gave himself up to the government in Baghlan. “Each group has its own vision, its own ideology, its own agenda.”
If Hekmatyar’s intention is to rattle the Taliban with his overtures to the government, the tactic may be working. After the Kabul talks, a statement posted on the Taliban website described the negotiations as “a trap laid by the enemies of Islam” and insisted that there should be no parley until Western troops had left Afghanistan.
But Hekmatyar, a master of the double game, may also be working behind the scenes with the Taliban to formulate strategy. Wahid Mozhda, a former Taliban official who sometimes serves as an intermediary, said some of the Hezb-i- Islami demands presented to the government represented common aims of the two movements.
Militarily, Hekmatyar’s forces are considerably weaker than the Taliban. They are concentrated in northern provinces such as Baghlan and neighboring Kunduz, which have been recent trouble spots for Western forces but are not regarded with the same urgency as the Taliban heartland of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
But Hezb-i-Islami, in its political incarnation, is a powerful movement across Afghanistan. Its onetime allied party, which has publicly distanced itself from Hekmatyar, holds a number of governorships and Cabinet posts, with dozens of members or sympathizers in parliament.
If there were some accord in place, many analysts believe Hekmatyar could draw on that base to reinsert himself into national politics. No one considers any agreement imminent. Some elements of the 15-point plan presented by Hekmatyar’s representatives are considered non-starters -- for instance, a demand that foreign troops leave Afghanistan this year. But those familiar with the talks, including lawmaker Sultanzoy, said they detected a degree of flexibility on the part of Hekmatyar’s envoys.
“Their attitude, their body language, was very pragmatic,” he said.
Hekmatyar loyalists say they will do as he tells them -- whether that turns out to be accepting reconciliation or redoubling attacks against Western troops.
“If the government accepts our demands, we will stop fighting,” said Diyan, the ex-commander. “But if our demands are not accepted, we will never, never stop.”
Either way, Hekmatyar will probably exploit the current climate of uncertainty for maximum gain, said Abdullah Nahzatiyar, party chief in Baghlan of Hezb-i-Islami’s erstwhile political ally.
“He wants one thing,” Nahzatiyar said. “All the power for himself.”