Reconciliation Efforts in Afghanistan Flounder

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Hasan Sarbakhshian - AP)
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By Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

KABUL -- As Washington policymakers debate the U.S. role in Afghanistan, most agree that one element will be important to whatever strategy emerges: the need for reconciliation with insurgents who can be bought off or persuaded to lay down their weapons.

But those efforts have become increasingly difficult in recent weeks as the Taliban gains strength and as Afghans grow more and more anxious that the United States is not committed to their country for the long term.

"When the enemy has the momentum, it's highly unlikely you're going to get people willing to talk," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led the Obama administration's war policy review in the spring. "Why would you pick the loser?"

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has acknowledged the problem, writing in his war assessment that the perception "that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."

In addition, the Afghan government's own efforts at reconciliation have been tentative, incoherent and underfunded. The political limbo in the country, amid a disputed and unresolved presidential election, makes negotiation even more unlikely. And U.S. soldiers say they do not have sufficient latitude to strike deals with their adversaries.

An insurgent strike on a U.S. combat outpost in the Kamdesh area of eastern Afghanistan this month, which left eight American troops dead, underscores the difficulties of attempting to co-opt the enemy. The attack was attributed, at least in part, to the militant network of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which had been seen by some American policymakers as a ripe target for reconciliation efforts.

Hekmatyar has a decades-long history as a Machiavellian insurgent commander, a famously duplicitous leader who switched alliances when it favored him, was blamed for rocket attacks on the Afghan capital when he rose to become prime minister in the 1990s, and evolved from the CIA's favored recipient of weapons and money in the 1980s to a steadfast U.S. enemy.

A Soviet-Era Warlord

During the war against the Soviet Union, Hekmatyar earned a reputation as one of the most powerful Afghan warlords, overseeing a well-armed, loyal and disciplined fighting force from his base in northwest Pakistan. He also excelled at self-promotion and had a wide range of benefactors: At one time, he was being paid by Americans, Pakistanis, Iranians and Saudis simultaneously, said Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden division.

"What he wants is power, and he will play the game to get himself there. He cooperated when it suited him, even with enemies," Scheuer said.

Based on his history of changing sides, some consider Hekmatyar a candidate for negotiations to take his Hezb-e-Islami militia off the Afghan battlefield. Some U.S. officials view Hekmatyar's movement as an older and somewhat degraded insurgent organization losing ground to the younger and more radical Taliban.

"If you're going to be a hard guy and fight jihad, you're not going to do it for somebody who is going to turn," said a U.S. military official, speaking about Hekmatyar. "Right now he's losing control."

There are also signs that commanders in Hekmatyar's militia might be willing to cooperate with the Afghan government, even as they vow to attack U.S. soldiers. Senior American commanders in eastern Afghanistan have made attempts to reach out to Hekmatyar's commanders through letters. But they have been hindered by a lack of clear instructions on what they can offer militants willing to lay down their weapons and support the Afghan government.

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