The notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is far from being humbled by having to make peace with Kabul, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai
No sooner had the former Afghan mujahideen leader, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar,returned to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in May, nearly 20 years after he went underground, than he was seeking a bigger role than his political and military strength warranted.
Hekmatyar first appeared in public in Mehterlam, capital of the eastern Laghman province, on April 29 before moving on to Jalalabad, the main city of Nangarhar province, to dramatise his emergence after years in hiding. It seems he was living comfortably in neighbouring Pakistan, trying to prevent his party, Hezb-i-Islami, from splintering further, issuing occasional statements to the media in an effort to maintain a profile amid the new realities in Afghanistan, and writing Islamic books. He moved to Pakistan after falling out with Iran, where he sought refuge around 1996, after suffering defeat at the hands of the Taliban.
Once back in Kabul, Hekmatyar wasted no time in offending both factions in the national unity government, an uneasy alliance between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah, who holds the title of Chief Executive Officer. He provoked them by arguing that Afghanistan’s constitution needed to be amended, and referring to the Taliban as ‘brothers’. The national unity government, he claimed, was formed by the former US secretary of state, John Kerry, rather than by the Afghan people – a challenge to its legitimacy.
Despite having agreed to accept the Afghan constitution as part of his peace deal with the government, Hekmatyar said he had a better alternative, without giving any details. President Ghani – a Pashtun, like Hekmatyar and most of the Taliban – retorted that it wasn’t the time to amend the constitution, which should be strengthened and adhered to.
The unity government, said Abdullah, a Tajik, was voted for by Afghans, not imposed. The Taliban could be the ‘brothers’ of Hekmatyar, but not of the Afghan people. The warlord replied that anyone rejecting the term was not interested in peace, because continuing the war in Afghanistan suited their interests.
The Afghan government had hoped that a deal with Hekmatyar would reinforce its position. Making peace for the first time with an armed group could show the way to the Taliban to seek a possible power-sharing arrangement, it was believed. However, his behaviour – even offering himself as a mediator between Ghani and Abdullah – threatens to upset the delicate power equation in Kabul.
Hekmatyar also claimed he could facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, speaking on behalf of the movement if necessary. Not only was this unlikely in the extreme, since the Taliban arose in opposition to notorious warlords like Hekmatyar, but a spokesman derisively pointed out that few of his fighters had stuck with him. Most of them, he said, had joined the Taliban after Hekmatyar’s controversial peace deal with the Afghan government.
Though his influence is limited, Hekmatyar has injected an element of uncertainty at a time when Afghanistan is suffering from high levels of violence and its relations with Pakistan, a country that could play a role in Afghan peacemaking, have hit a new low. Another point of friction could be the expected decision by the Trump administration to deploy more American and allied troops from other Nato member countries in Afghanistan.
The US military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, is seeking several thousand more troops this summer to cope with increased Taliban attacks and tilt the existing stalemate in favour of the US-led coalition forces. Agreement by the White House and the Pentagon seems certain: the only decision pending is whether to deploy 3,000 or 5,000 American soldiers, and the number of troops to be provided by other Nato members.
Hekmatyar, like the Taliban, is in principle opposed to the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and will not support this Nato ‘mini-surge’. The Afghan government, on the other hand, is eager for as many Nato troops as it can get, to serve for as long as possible. It is unlikely to listen to a figure who has already burnt his boats, in its view.
This is not the outcome Kabul had hoped for during almost two years of negotiations with Hekmatyar, which broke down on several occasions. Ghani and Abdulllah had promised in the 2014 presidential polls to pursue peace with the armed opposition, but in two and a half years their coalition had nothing to show on this front. The deal with Hekmatyarat leastpartially fulfilled their promise, and showed that Afghans could negotiate directly with each other without external involvement, notably by Pakistan,which is not seen by most Afghans as a credible mediator. It was also evidence of enough space in mainstream Afghan politics to accommodate warlords such as Hekmatyar.
The advantages to Hekmatyar, whose military and political strength had ebbed away, were clearer. He had no chance of succeeding in his demands for the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan, the holding of fresh elections and amendments in the constitution. But the government agreed to release his captured fighters and facilitate the return of Pakistan-based Afghan refugees aligned to him, as well as assisting in their rehabilitation. With help from the US and its Western allies, Kabul also managed to remove Hekmatyar’s name from the UN Security Council black-list, enabling him to be relieved of sanctions, emerge from hiding and move to an official residence in Kabul.
There have been delays in implementing some terms of the deal, including the release of Hezb-i-Islami-affiliated prisoners and repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Some Afghan human rights and civil society activists have opposed the release of prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
Though the beleaguered Afghan government has shown its commitment to the agreement thus far, Hekmatyar’s intransigence could prompt some in ruling circles to call for implementation to be slowed down, or even for a review. The warlord may be told that if he does not co-operate more, particularly with the peace process, the deal could be a dead letter.