By Irfan U Din
Dated: 15 May 2017
Amid the inking of peace accord with Hezb-e-Islami in September 2016, the political inclusion of Gulbadin Hekmatyar, is seen as a major political achievement which can pave way for the revival of peace talks with Taliban insurgents, the major actor of instability in Afghanistan. This commentary will explore the possible implications of Hekmatyar’s political inclusion on peace and stability in Afghanistan.
On 30 April 2017, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, a notorious Afghan Warlord, the primo of Hezb-e-Islami and ex-Afghan Prime Minster in his first public appearance after 20 years of self exile, addressed a large public gathering in Laghman province of Afghanistan. In his address, Hekmatyar called upon the Taliban insurgents to lay down their arms and join the peace process. The political return of Mr. Hekmatyar, widely known in the international community as the “Butcher of Kabul”, was made possible after the Afghan government inked a peace accord with Hezb-e-Islami in September last year. According to the agreement, Hezb-e-Islami will lay down their arms and recognize the constitution of Afghanistan while in exchange the Afghan governments will not only grant amnesty to Hekmatyar for all his offences but will also release Hezb-e-Islami’s prisoners in government jails and rehabilitate 20 thousand Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan from Shamsatu refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. Delisting the group and its leaders from the UN black list was also an important precondition which the government has agreed to comply with.
The peace deal and the recent public appearance of Gulbadin Hekmayatar is widely hailed, both by Afghans and the international community, as a major achievement which can trigger other insurgent groups to shun violence and opt for political resolution of the decades long violent insurgency in the country.
However, in the context of existing nature and dynamics of conflict in the country, such expectations are not only naïve but are far from reality with very limited practical significance. Firstly, Hisb-e-Islami is not among the major actors of instability in the contemporary context of ongoing violent conflict in Afghanistan. In fact, it is a fading insurgent group with a very limited operational capacity in few provinces of the country. For instance, with the exception to a suicide blast in Kabul City in the year 2014 in which two contractors for the U.S.-led military coalition were killed while several Afghan civilians were injured, the group has not claimed a single attack during the past three years, which shows the diminishing active presence of Hezb-e-Islami in the battlefield. As a consequence, huge number of its former fighters have also joined the ranks of other actors of conflict in the country to continue their armed struggle.
Secondly, with the Taliban insurgents regaining strength inside Afghanistan, it is unlikely that they will halt their insurgent activities and join the peace process over the call made by Hekmatyar. For instance, the intentions of the Taliban insurgents to join the peace process became clear in their first reaction to the peace deal with Hezb-e-Islami. In a detailed article published on their website, the Taliban insurgents not only denounced Hekmatayar for leaving his 15 years long Jihad (Holy War), but also rejected his offer to join the peace process. In fact, Taliban have since then stepped up their activities across Afghanistan. The coordinated and complex attack on a military base in Balkh province and the recent takeover of Qila-e- Zal district in the volatile province of Kunduz, as a part of their spring offense code named “Operation Mansuri,” manifest their resolve to continue their armed struggle against the western coalition backed government in the country.
Thirdly, the growing influence of Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan is one of the major reasons which can undermine the significance of Hekmatyar’s political inclusion in de-escalating violence in the country. The Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) since 2015, despite intensive military operations against the group in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, has not only been able to claim responsibility for high profile attacks in the Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, but also challenged the Taliban insurgents in the battlefield in Helmand, Farah, Jawzan and several other provinces of the country. For instance, on 26 April 2017, 28 terrorist (21 Taliban and seven IS-K) were killed in fierce armed clash between the two groups in Chaparhar district of Nangarhar province, which lasted for several days. The growing influence of IS-K in the country, particularly in the Northern Afghanistan, has not only complicated the dynamics of conflict in Afghanistan, but also is believed to be one of the major factors discouraging Taliban insurgents from joining the peace process.
Fourthly, there are serious question marks over the ability of Afghan government to comply with all the demands of Hezb-e-Islami, which the former has agreed to implement as pre-condition for the peace deal. Although, the Afghan government has already fulfilled some of the agreed demands (Delisting of Hezb-e-Islami from UN blacklist, rehabilitation of HeI refugees), others are yet to be realized. For instance, the western backed coalition government has agreed to provide food, shelter, government jobs and financial support to more than 20 thousand members of Hizb-e-Islami. But the question to ponder here is, does the government of Afghanistan has enough resources to materialize these promises? Given, the steady decline in the international financial support to Afghanistan since 2011, along with rampant corruption in development funds, it is very unlikely for Afghan government to continue the financial support to all the members of HeI in the long run, which will not only breed disgruntlement among HeI cadres against the National Unity Government, but will also make them vulnerable for Taliban recruitment.
As a part of the agreed demands, Hezb-e-Islami has also provided a list of its 3500 members imprisoned over criminal and terrorism charges in various jails of country. On 2 May 2017, the Afghan government released 55 out of 69 inmates in the first batch from Pul-e-Charkhi and Bagram prisons. However, tension between HeI and Afghan government came to the surface when the release of 13 high profile leaders of Hezb-e-Islami was delayed after the Independent Human Rights Commission challenged the authority of President to release prisoners with charges of terrorism.Likewise, with exception to Gulbadin Hikmatayar, all the high profile leaders of the HeI are yet to be de-listed from UN black list which signifies the limitations of Afghan government in meeting the agreed demands of the Peace Deal, which can possibly act as a catalyst in fueling the low tide of tensions between the National Unity Government and Hezb-e-Islami.
Fifthly, Hikmatyar’s return will further widen the exiting rifts and schism in the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG). The fragile NUG is already facing multifaceted challenges, including the growing rifts over power sharing between President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, rampant corruption, and pressures and defections by the former warlords etc. Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ghani’s special adviser on governance, was recently fired by Ghani after he threatened to quit and lead anti-government protests.
In this context, it is also pertinent to mention here that, in the new political structure formed in post-2001 administration, Hekmatyar’s once deadly rivals among the traditionally marginalized ethnicities (Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks) have raised to prominent positions in the government. They will never welcome the political inclusion of Hekmatyar as they must be well aware of Hekmatyar’s strong leadership abilities and the rich background of fighting foreign occupiers, which will not only help Hekmatyar in uniting the dissenting politically active factions of Hezb-e-Islami, but also in buttressing Pashtun dominance in the National Unity Government. On the other hand, the resettlement of more than 20 thousand families (all members of HeI) back to Afghanistan in particular will strengthen Hekmatyar’s political base in the country, while his image as former Mujahideen fighter and intransigent and dogmatic interpreter of faith, can garner substantial political support for him, particularly among the conservative and rural Pashtun populace.
Resultantly, this will add to the existing schism in Afghan political arena on ethnic basis. Already, non-Pashtun leaders have started raising their voices against Hekmatayar. Atta Muhammad Noor, a former warlord and the Governor of Balkh province, in his public message on Muhajideen Victory Day ceremony, although welcomed the return of GulbadinHekmatyar but expressed serious concerns over the government decision to allow Hezb-e-Islami members to keep their weapons. Likewise, the presence of huge number of Afghans in protest outside Hekmatyar’s government-funded residence in western Kabulalso manifests the deep divisions among the Afghans on ethnic lines over Hekmatayar’s political inclusion.
In nutshell, it can be said that Hekmatyar’s political inclusion is although a major achievement in the context of Afghanistan Peace Process; however, it has very limited practical significance in de-escalating violence in the country. In fact, his reappearance in Afghanistan’s political arena is expected to further add to the existing multifaceted challenges confronted by the National Unity Government of Afghanistan through widening the existing divide on ethnic basis.