KARACHI, Pakistan – Fugitive Afghan rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar told The Associated Press that his forces have ended cooperation with the Taliban and suggested that he was open to talks with embattled President Hamid Karzai.
In a video response to questions submitted by AP, Hekmatyar said that his group contacted Taliban leaders in 2003 and agreed to wage a joint jihad, or holy war, against American troops.
"The jihad went into high gear but later it gradually went down as certain elements among the Taliban rejected the idea of a joint struggle against the aggressor," Hekmatyar said in the video, which was received Thursday. Hekmatyar wore glasses and a black turban as he spoke in front of a plain white wall at an undisclosed location.
He offered no details of the split or its timing, but said his forces were now mounting only restricted operations, partly because of a lack of resources.
"It was not a good move by the Taliban to disassociate themselves from the joint struggle," he said. "Presently we have no contact with the Taliban."
Hekmatyar's Hezb-i Islami fighters, who have been most active in eastern Afghanistan, were central to the CIA-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in the civil war that followed, but were sidelined by the Taliban militia's rise to power in the mid-1990s.
Hekmatyar nevertheless opposed the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 that pushed the Taliban from power, and his followers have since waged a campaign of violence against American and allied forces. Hekmatyar's exact whereabouts have been unknown since he returned to Afghanistan from exile in Iran in 2002.
AP's questions to Hekmatyar were submitted through an intermediary three weeks ago. There was no indication of where or exactly when the video was shot.
Asked if he would consider opening negotiations with Karzai, Hekmatyar said dialogue was the best way to resolve Afghanistan's problems — albeit with conditions the U.S.-backed government would be unlikely to accept — apparently a cease-fire followed by negotiations.
"We say that dialogue can only be fruitful if the aggressors truly allow the Kabul government to halt the fighting, negotiate with the mujahedeen and honor what Kabul and the resistance decide," Hekmatyar said.
"This is the prime and basic demand of the Afghan nation and if such a conducive environment could be provided, we can go for dialogue with Karzai," he said.
The U.S. government considers Hekmatyar a terrorist. A CIA drone fired a missile at him near Kabul in 2002, but missed. Hekmatyar said American forces had twice come close to him on the ground.
He insisted he had a large pool of fighters who could sustain a long struggle. And, while his tone was more conciliatory toward both the West and Karzai than in the past, he sent a defiant message to President Bush that he had no hope of defeating the insurgency.
The Taliban is vowing to intensify its resistance this spring, and says it has thousands of forces deployed in southern Afghanistan, where NATO this week launched its biggest offensive yet.
"You must have realized that attacking Afghanistan and Iraq was a historical mistake. You do not have any other option but to take out your forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and give the Iraqis and Afghans the right to live their own way and select the system of their choice."