Despite continued violence in southern Afghanistan, there are signs that an appeal by the government to reach out to opponents might be bearing fruit.
Recently, a breakaway faction of the radical Islamic group Hizb-e Islami, which has been blamed for guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan's restive south and east, announced that it wants peace and a constructive role to play in the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai.
Although the group does not represent the whole of Hizb-e Islami or leader Hekmatyar -- whose whereabouts remain unknown -- analysts say its announcement may signal a positive trend in Afghanistan's evolving "peace process."
The announcement came after Karzai recently appealed to rank-and-file members of the former Taliban regime to stop fighting the government and work to rebuild Afghanistan, which is set to hold general elections in September.
Khalid Farooqi, calling himself the head of Hizb-e Islami's "decision-making body," told a news conference in Kabul on 2 May that he and others in a breakaway faction of the radical Islamic group are tired of fighting and want to contribute to the country's rebirth.
"We hate violence and understand that it will not serve to rehabilitate Afghanistan. We believe that only peaceful discussions between Afghans can create national confidence and resolve problems," Farooqi said.
Fighting between government troops and U.S. soldiers and forces loyal to the Taliban has intensified in recent weeks. Yesterday, Taliban officials in the southern city of Kandahar said their guerrillas killed nine government troops and five policemen in the latest clash.
Two foreigners and an Afghan helping the United Nations prepare for elections were killed yesterday in a separate attack in the remote eastern province of Nuristan, a senior Afghan official said today.
The Taliban, ousted with U.S. help in late 2001, has vowed to wage holy war against the Kabul government, aid workers, foreign troops, and international peacekeeping forces.
Abdul Ghafar Karyab is another member of the Hizb-e Islami faction that says it wants peace. A former mayor of Jalalabad, Karyab told the news conference that his group has developed an "atmosphere of trust" after engaging in secret talks with the government. He also urged the government to continue urging opponents to join the political process.
"I don't think that Hizb-e Islami supports terrorism. In our view, those who think they can solve Afghanistan's problems through military means are wrong. We don't think Afghanistan is an occupied country. We tell these people [government opponents] they should follow the peace process. We have also appealed to the government to invite these people to the peace process. We expect a new initiative of the government to convince all the others who want war, not just Hizb-e Islami, to join the peace process," Karyab said.
Farooqi said his faction had cut all ties with Hizb-e Islami founder Hekmatyar, a former prime minister identified as a "terrorist" by Washington. He said the faction has had no contact with Hekmatyar for the last three years.
The precise whereabouts of Hekmatyar, who rained rockets on Kabul during factional clashes in the 1990s and is believed to have teamed up with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, have been a mystery since he was expelled from Iran in 2002.
Farooqi said fighting no longer interested Hizb-e Islami and that his group supports the U.S.-trained Afghan National Army, higher education for women, free elections, and moves to disarm private militias.
But given Hekmatyar's central role in Hizb-e Islami, analysts question the extent to which the faction's peace gesture represents the whole group -- or could influence its remaining members.
Kathy Gannon has worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan for 14 years as a correspondent for AP. Now a fellow with New York's Council on Foreign Relations, she told RFE/RL the gesture by Farooqi and his colleagues might be genuine; but it might not mean that much, since they do not represent Hizb-e Islami.
"The thing is, if they haven't had any contact with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then they don't represent Hizb-e Islami. Then it is [simply] a group of people that are saying that we want to be part of the government," Gannon said.
Yet that in itself might hold the seeds of a significant trend, said Michael Griffin, a British expert on Afghanistan and author of "Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan."
Griffin said that despite the violence that continues to rage in the south and east of the country, Karzai's government stands to gain a lot if he can convince other opponents to choose politics over violence.
He said the success of Karzai's appeal to ordinary members of the Taliban and other opponents of the government could go a long way toward determining the country's future stability. Griffin added that Karzai's effort to co-opt insurgents came after long-standing opposition from the U.S. Defense Department.
"For the short-term interests -- for the medium- and long-term interests of Afghanistan, for that matter -- you have to bring in the Pashtun majority. It's the majority in the south and east of the country which have been fighting most virulently against America and Afghan soldiers -- they've killed 400 [Afghan soldiers] since September 2003. Thus, they need to be compromised. They need to be brought into government. They need very much to be brought into the electoral process. Whether they can handle it or not is another question," Griffin said.
Much like the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami is mostly made up of ethnic Pashtuns.
As in Afghanistan with the Taliban, the Pentagon has also recently reversed its former policy in Iraq that prevented members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from holding government jobs. Partly in a bid to quell violence against U.S. forces by Sunni Muslims, Washington is now recruiting former members of the mostly Sunni Ba'ath Party for key positions in Iraq.
Gannon said Afghanistan would probably benefit from a similar policy as it gears up for September's presidential and parliamentary elections, its first national polls after years of fighting and instability.
"Demonizing everybody isn't the answer in Afghanistan, and I think that's what Hamid Karzai is saying," Gannon said. "You know, every Pashtun isn't in the Taliban and every person who's in the Taliban isn't an enemy."