Major Taliban allies in peace talks with Karzai

Afghan president holds talks with leading militant group. Sudan threatens to throw out international election observers. Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan to come under renewed investigation. North Korea to try American man for illegal entry. All this and much more, in today’s security briefing.

In an unprecedented step towards peace, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai met with envoys from the country’s second largest militant group on Monday. Representatives from Hezb-e-Islami, an insurgent faction that is loosely allied with the Taliban, presented a list of conditions as the basis for a peace settlement to Karzai, as confirmed by the president's spokesman.

The meeting is the first time Karzai has talked directly to one of the three main groups battling the central government and NATO troops. Hezb-e Islami, meaning Islamic Party, is led by the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Mujaheddin commander. The militant group is responsible for a large number of attacks on coalition forces in north and east Afghanistan, whereas the Taliban are based principally in the south of the country. A third group of insurgents operates in the south-east of the country under the direction of commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Hezb-e-Islami spokesman Haroun Zarghoun confirmed that it was the first time the group has sent representatives to Kabul for talks. Their delegation presented a fifteen-point plan with demands for peace, including the withdrawal of all foreign soldiers in six months and a call for the Karzai government to stand down in anticipation of new elections within the year. Karzai has not yet responded to the proposed outline for a peace settlement, his spokesperson said. However, the New York Times reported that some senior figures in the Karzai government, such as Vice-President Fahim, have serious reservations about negotiations with their former enemies.

The US state department welcomed the news, although it emphasized that any militant groups involved in talks must give up violence, support the Afghan constitution, and sever any links to extremist groups like al-Qaeda.

The announcement comes days after former United Nations official Kai Eide revealed that he had secret talks with the Taliban leadership. However, those talks were abruptly broken off after Pakistan initiated a crackdown on senior Afghan Taliban figures hiding in Pakistan, including the arrest of Taliban second-in-command Mullah Baradar. The capture of Baradar, who is known as a moderate, shifted power to Taliban hardliners refusing all talks.

The openSecurity verdict: Hezb-e-Islami’s infamous leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is widely considered one of the most brutal warlords in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun and anti-Soviet guerrilla commander in the 1980s, is said to have targetted other Muhjaheddin more than the Soviets. He played a major role in the Afghan civil war during the 1990s, in which more than 25,000 civilians were killed. Hektamayar, who also briefly held the position of Afghan prime minister in 1996, is known for being an opportunist, having switched his allegiance several times before. In 2003, the United States branded him a terrorist due to his support for al-Qaeda.

However, his laden history and villainous reputation should be weighed against the prospects of a peace settlement. Bringing the insurgents back into the fold and getting them to lay down their arms is essential for the future of Afghanistan. President Karzai is planning a peace jirga, an assembly of various groups of Afghan society to talk about ending the fighting. The participation of one of the country’s key militant groups in this assembly would boost its chances of success, opening up the possibility of a meaningful political deal between the government and the insurgents. Mohammed Qasim, a politics professor at Kabul university, called Hezb-e-Islami a “powerful and influential opposition group”, and said that its readiness for peace talks “will certainly have an impact”.

Hezb-e-Islami has been aligned with the Taliban against the foreign troops since the US-led invasion in 2001, but the two insurgent groups have an adversarial relationship. Hekmatyar battled the Taliban in the civil war, and he was forced to flee Kabul when the Taliban took control of the capital in 1996. Just last month Hezb-e-Islami fighters clashed with the Taliban in the province of Baghlan, leaving fifty people dead in the disputed territory.

Monday’s meeting seems to indicate a deepening rift between both organizations. The best strategy for the Karzai government and foreign diplomats is to exploit this feud, and attempt to drive a wedge between the various insurgents. The militant opposition to Kabul have been simplistically portrayed as one homogenous group, but are in reality divided in accordance with the country's long tradition of ethnic, tribal, and political strife. A ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy, aimed at playing off the insurgents against each other, offers the best chances of forging a resilient political establishment, incorporating some insurgent groups. If Hezb-e-Islami could be coopted into supporting the Karzai government along the lines of Baghdad's Awakening groups, violence in the north-east of Afghanistan would likely fall. Securing the area would allow more force to be re-directed against Taliban bulwarks in the south, in turn increasing pressure on the Taliban to start peace negotiations.

Sudan threatens to throw out international election observers

Sudan’s president threatened on Monday to expel international election monitors after they called for a delay in the country’s first multi-party poll in 24 years. Last week, the Atlanta-based Carter Center recommended a “minor” postponement of the elections over concerns whether Sudan’s election commission can ensure a successful vote on time.

President Omar al-Bashir rejected the calls for a delay on state television, and angrily warned international observers that anyone demanding a postponement will be expelled from the country. “We wanted them to see the free and fair elections,” he said, “but if they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes and throw them out”.

Opposition groups and international NGOs claim Sudan’s election commission favours al-Bashir’s ruling party. Many have asked for the elections to be postponed, in an attempt to win time for more democratic reforms. The election commission, however, has maintained that the vote will go ahead as scheduled.

Last year, al-Bashir kicked out thirteen large foreign aid groups, following an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan to face renewed investigation

Pakistan’s government has asked for court permission to reopen a formal inquiry into the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan, a nuclear scientist instrumental in Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons who went on to covertly offer Pakistani technology for sale, would be questioned about his role in international proliferation and transactions with Iran and Iraq.

The authorities filed their petition to investigate the matter after the publication of two articles about Khan in The Washington Post on 10 and 14 March. The articles alleged that Khan, a former senior figure in Pakistan’s nuclear programme, had helped Iran and Iraq to develop nuclear weapons without the knowledge of the Pakistani government. Both Khan and the government have denied the reports. The government had already placed restrictions on Khan’s movement, barring him from speaking to the media and surrounding him with guards “for this own security”.

Senior diplomats have suggested that the move towards re-investigating Khan is a ploy to placate the United States, ahead of this week’s strategic dialogue between Washington and Islamabad. Among other things, Pakistan hopes to acquire US support for its civilian nuclear programme. Khan maintains that the accusations of proliferation against him are “baseless”, and that they are meant “to appease the outside world”.

North Korea to try American man for illegal entry

A man from Boston is being detained in North Korea and will be tried for entering the country illegally, North Korean officials said yesterday. Aijalon Gomes, aged 30, was arrested two months ago. He will be put on trial after the North Korean authorities “confirmed criminal evidence”.

Only limited information is available about Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea. It is unclear why he crossed the border with North Korea. A spokesman for his family said that his family was “praying for his speedy return home”. The US state department expressed concern for the man’s “health and welfare”, for the “legal processes he might face”, and for North Korea’s “lack of transparency”.

Gomes is the last in a series of four Americans detained on charges of entering North Korea illegally. Last summer, two American journalists were imprisoned but were eventually freed in a deal that was brokered by former US president Bill Clinton.