Carrot games in AfghanistanKARACHI - With the consolidation of US-backed President Hamid Karzai's position in Afghanistan following elections late last year, the administration in Kabul is seeking to further entrench itself so that the US can retain and expand its presence in landlocked Afghanistan and beyond to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
Evidence of this can be found in the recent release of hundreds of Taliban detainees after local tribes in different areas guaranteed that their men would not volunteer for any anti-US movement in the region.
Taking advantage of the Afghan resistance's shattered situation, resulting from a lack of funds, no safe sanctuary and no external help, the US aims to woo as many resistance commanders as it can.
However, the real political developments are taking place between the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the US: the HIA, even if Hekmatyar refuses to agree to a ceasefire, will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year. The HIA, which was once the largest resistance group against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, remains an important component of the current Afghan resistance.
Well placed sources in Peshawar inform Asia Times Online that backroom negotiations with top HIA members appear to have reached a concluding phase in which the HIA will be allowed to keep its influence in Kabul and Pashtun-dominated areas in Afghanistan.
The US bid to woo the HIA turned serious when US officials met with Hekmatyar's son, British-educated Jamal Din, in Afghanistan. Din acted as an intermediary between the US and Hekmatyar. However, Hekmatyar himself is holding out for nothing short of a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, a demand which is unacceptable to the US.
Nevertheless, Hekmatyar might be isolating himself. A top HIA commander, Ustad Fareed, who was Hekmatyar's confidant and active in the resistance, has quietly moved to Kabul, where he now lives as a private citizen. Observers in Peshawar see this as a major development in a possible deal between the HIA and the US.
The chief of the HIA in Pakistan and a former deputy prime minister of the interim government in Kabul, Dr Qutubuddin Hilal, also visited Afghanistan and held talks with Karzai. However, since Hilal only put forward Hekmatyar's hardline demand for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the talks did not achieve anything.
A few months ago, Hilal visited the United Kingdom for treatment for an illness. "Of course, everybody knows that Dr Hilal, the US and Britain still see the HIA as a terrorist organization, and it is also a fact that Dr Hilal did not sneak into the UK, but acquired a visa from the UK High Commission in Islamabad. What can I say, everything is crystal clear before you. We know that Mullah Omar [Taliban leader] or any of his confidants cannot travel like this," said an HIA official in Peshawar on condition of anonymity.
Recently, Hilal returned to Peshawar, where he is bedridden because of his illness.
At the same time, the US has started a new campaign in the shape of newspaper advertisements. These carry photographs of al-Qaeda members and Osama bin Laden and offer rewards for information leading to their capture. The latest addition is Mullah Omar. However, Hekmatyar's name is not mentioned.
Clearly, the US is prepared to make major political bargains with as many Taliban and HIA officials as it can.
The Afghan national resistance had consolidated on firm ground by the end of 2002, and was about to enter its final phase, but this was cut short, mainly because Pakistan, under US pressure, stepped up its activities against the resistance in the tribal belt: several powerful Taliban bases were destroyed.
"At present, there are hundreds of Afghan diehards who were educated in HIA schools in Peshawar and are ready to sacrifice their lives fighting against US troops in Afghanistan, but there are two issues without which participation in the resistance is near-impossible. A safe sanctuary like Pakistan, from where the Afghan resistance fought against the former USSR, and second, the leadership to organize the fighters from the safe sanctuary and direct them in operations. At present, we do not have a base to organize our youths, and our leadership is unable to command the youths as they do not have any base," said an HIA official in Peshawar.
"Right now everybody is demoralized. A large number of HIA officials, like Maulvi Sarfraz Janbaz, Qasim Hamat and others, have left the party and established themselves in Kabul and represent themselves as HIA members. Hekmatyar is on the run and every other day we hear news about commanders and members leaving," the official said.
"Here in Peshawar, it looks difficult for the old leadership like Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar to reunite the scattered movement once again," the same official said.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org