To the dismay of many, one of the country’s most notorious figures has done a deal with the Kabul government. But Rahimullah Yusufzai reports that it could be a model for a far bigger prize – an agreement with the Taliban
War fatigue and political necessity can lead to some improbable alliances. Afghanistan has just witnessed one of the most unlikely of all: a peace deal between the ‘Butcher of Kabul’, former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and President Ashraf Ghani.
At the late September signing ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul, the 69-year-old Hekmatyar said the Afghan people were tired of war, and want peace. But despite almost four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, many Afghans aligned with armed groups continue to fight. And significantly, Hekmatyar was not yet present in the capital, which suffered indiscriminate shelling by his Hezb-i-Islami movement in the 1990s. He was addressing the gathering by video.
Hezb-i-Islami would probably still be fighting if lack of manpower had not left it unable to make attacks, or capture any territory. It was no match for the Taliban, the dominant armed movement, which distrusted Hezb-i-Islami and refused to make an alliance with it. With splits in its ranks, and many defections to the Afghan government or the Taliban, Hekmatyar’s group had become weak and largely irrelevant.
During their 2014 presidential contest, both Ghani and his rival, Dr Abdullah, promised to make peacemaking their first priority. But the two men, who formed a unity government, were making no headway in efforts to engage the Taliban in a dialogue. Peace talks with Hekmatyar’s representatives had been going on in Kabul for months, amid reports that Dr Abdullah and his supporters in the Jamiat-i-Islami, bitter rivals of Hezb-i-Islami during the war against Soviet occupying forces, were against making any major concessions to Hekmatyar.
In the end though, both sides have had to concede ground. Hekmatyar had vowed never to join the ‘puppet’ government in Kabul, and to continue fighting until all foreign soldiers left Afghanistan. Those positions were abandoned, along with demands for fresh elections and the enforcement of Sharia law. Hezb-i-Islami agreed to stop fighting and give up its military installations, abide by Afghanistan’s constitution, obey the law, release government officials in its captivity and dissociate from all illegal and terrorist groups. In return, Hezb-i-Islami will be allowed to become part of the mainstream, after years in the political wilderness.
Under the terms of the agreement, legal amnesty is being offered to Hekmatyar, who was wanted by the US and whose party was classified as a terrorist organisation. The deal also calls for the names of Hezb-i-Islami members to be removed from the UN Security Council ‘black list’, and for those imprisoned to be released. Hekmatyar and his supporters, including Afghan refugees linked to his party, are to be resettled in Afghanistan on land and in houses to be made available by the Afghan government. The Afghan government has removed Hezb-i-Islami from its list of ‘armed enemies’, and will shelve the multiple allegations of human rights violations committed by Hekmatyar and his men, going back to before the Soviet occupation.
After the collapse of the Communist regime in 1992, a bloody battle broke out for control of the Afghan capital, in which the city was heavily damaged and about 50,000 persons were killed. Multiple mujahideen factions were involved, including President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defence minister, Ahmad Shah Masood, Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rasheed Dostum, Shia Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari and his rival Sunni warlord, Prof Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf. Hekmatyar was nominally Prime Minister in a power-sharing government, but he formed an alliance with Dostum and bombarded Kabul with rockets and shells from outside the capital in an attempt to seize power for himself. Though a Sunni hardliner, he was prepared to ally himself even with the Shia Hazaras to gain his ends.
However, Hekmatyar and his aides are not alone. Afghanistan’s parliament and government in the post-Taliban period have not only granted amnesties to several other mujahideen leaders and warlords, including some accused of serious human rights violations and killing of rivals, but many have served in the post-Taliban governments of Hamid Karzai and his successor, Ghani. Almost without exception they are fabulously rich, and despite calls by Afghan civil society organisations, none has been put on trial.
The peace deal with Hekmatyar, one of the most notorious warlords of all, brought protests by some political and human rights activists in Kabul and other cities, but the government was unmoved. President Ghani quickly set up a high-powered joint commission to implement the agreement. A formal ceasefire was declared; the security forces were directed to provide security to Hekmatyar and his aides, and to help Hezb-i-Islami fighters if they were attacked by other armed groups. The government promised to treat Hezb-i-Islami ‘martyrs’ and disabled in the same way as others, to facilitate the honourable return home of Afghan refugees associated with the party, and to assist in their rehabilitation.
The most dramatic development would be the arrival in Kabul of Hekmatyar, believed to be hiding in Pakistan. This will not happen, however, until his name, and those of his colleagues, are removed by the US and the UN from the list of wanted men, and prisoners belonging to the party are released. The Afghan government has undertaken to seek this from the US, but Washington has already welcomed the peace agreement, hoping it will reduce the number of enemies the Afghan government and the remaining NATO forces are facing.
Hekmatyar was a favourite of Pakistan’s military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, during the Afghan ‘jihad’ against the Soviet occupation, but he was angered by the switch in Pakistani support to the Taliban, and even took refuge in Iran for a time. Inevitably there were differences with the Iranian government on its Afghanistan policy, and he had to leave.
All stakeholders are insisting that the peace accord was negotiated by Afghans themselves, without any outside mediation. Afghan officials have emphasised that Pakistan had no role, as if to remind Islamabad that it could not bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, despite promising to do so. In any case, Hekmatyar needed no persuading to hold peace talks with the Afghan government. Some have speculated that Pakistan wanted him to become part of the Afghan government to counter India’s strong influence in Afghanistan, but that appears far-fetched. President Ghani and Dr Abdullah would have no trouble in keeping marginal players such as Hezb-i-Islami at bay.
Others believe Ghani wanted the deal with his fellow Pashtun, Hekmatyar, to strengthen his position in his tussle with his Chief Executive Officer, Dr Abdullah, who represents most of the ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras. This too seems unlikely. Hekmatyar’s priority would be to reunite the three factions of Hezb-i-Islami, the party he founded in the 1970s, and become a major player in Afghan politics on his own, rather than strengthening Ghani, whose pro-West, secular views differ radically from his own.
It isn’t the first time Hekmatyar has made an unlikely alliance, and if the past is any guide, this one too could fall apart. Previously he has sought support in his unsuccessful efforts to rule Afghanistan, but this time he has declared he will not join the Afghan government, and will instead be content to be part of the political mainstream. This would be a new departure for a man who has fought one Afghan ruler after the other all his life, from President Sardar Daoud to the four Communist presidents, and from President Rabbani and the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Omar to presidents Karzai and Ghani. He has suffered the loss of close family members in fighting and endured constant displacement.
Hekmatyar’s peace agreement with the Afghan government certainly has symbolic importance and political significance, but no military impact. Only a peace deal with the Taliban will end armed conflict and stabilise Afghanistan, but despite renewed efforts to hold talks, a ceasefire is not yet in sight. If the accord with Hekmatyar can be implemented, however, it might signal that the Afghan government is not without power, and can fulfil its promises.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz