KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai held an unprecedented meeting Monday with representatives of a major Taliban-linked militant group, boosting his outreach to insurgency leaders to end the eight-year war.
Less certain is whether the talks with the Hizb-i-Islami faction represent a game-changer in the conflict, given its demand to rewrite the Afghan constitution and force a quick exit of foreign forces.
It is the first time that high-ranking representatives of the group, led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have traveled to Kabul to discuss peace. The reconciliation offer from Hekmatyar contrasts with his reputation as a ruthless extremist.
Hekmatyar's power has waned over the years, and he commands far fewer fighters than the Taliban. Nevertheless, Hizb-i-Islami is active in at least four provinces of eastern Afghanistan and parts of the north. His defection from the insurgency would be a coup for Karzai and could encourage some Taliban commanders to explore their own peace deals.
Talking with the Taliban and other insurgent groups is gaining traction in Afghanistan, even as thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements are streaming in to reverse the insurgents' momentum. The talks have not stemmed the fighting. NATO reported three service members were killed Monday in southern Afghanistan.
Hekmatyar, who is in his 60s, was a major recipient of U.S. military aid during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s but fell out of favor with Washington because of his role in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. The U.S. government declared Hekmatyar a "global terrorist" in February 2003, saying he participated in and supported terror acts committed by al-Qaida and the Taliban. Unless that tag is removed, the designation could complicate any move by the United States to sign off on a deal.
A spokesman for Hekmatyar said the delegation had lunch with Karzai at the presidential palace and planned to meet with him again. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the president would study the peace plan.