Hekmatyar’s return

September 25, 2016


TWO years of intense negotiations have finally led to the signing of a peace agreement between the Ashraf Ghani administration and Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s faction of the Hezb-i-Islami (HiG). Under the deal, the fugitive ex-prime minister has virtually been pardoned for his past offences.

Although the HiG is the second largest militant organisation in Afghanistan behind the Afghan Taliban, its role in the insurgency has not been as disconcerting as that of Taliban or the militant Islamic State group. Given the fact that the war in Afghanistan continues to widen with each passing day, the accord has a lot of symbolic value.

On the reconciliation front, it represents a big breakthrough in the past decade and a half for the national (dis)unity government — riven by internal rifts and shaken by an unrelenting Taliban insurgency. Ethnic Pakhtun and Tajik warlords in the camps of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah have been at odds on the peace process. Their mismatch of perceptions will likely impede the implementation of the deal.

Despite a largely positive global response to the long-anticipated development, hundreds of Afghans rallied in Kabul against the so-called landmark agreement hours after it was inked. To organisers of the protest, it is a deal with the devil, a compromise on hard-won constitutional freedoms, women’s rights and achievements of the past 15 years.

For Kabul, the pact is a giant step towards reconciliation.

On the other hand, the pact marks a giant stride toward national reconciliation for a fragile government haunted by multiple challenges. Since the ouster of the Taliban regime, Kabul has done all it could to cut deals with militant factions. But to its chagrin, almost all rebel outfits disregarded peace calls and chose to keep fighting against the US-backed leaders, who could not enforce their writ across the country.

If the government rules major cities and district centres, the insurgents continue to call the shots in much of the countryside, where they have set up their own courts and introduced their own curricula. In this bleak situation, even a modicum of success will be touted as a huge breakthrough by the fragile ruling coalition. If immediate public reaction is any guide, implementation of the agreement will be a hard nut to crack.

Kabul’s optimism that the Taliban and other armed groups will take their cue from HiG and come to the negotiating table seems naïve. They are unlikely to renounce militancy, much less jump on the reconciliation bandwagon, as long as they are not comprehensively defeated on the battlefield. As things stand, outright military victory for Afghan security forces appears to be a remote possibility.

In line with the accord, Hekmatyar will come in from the cold after living underground for nearly 20 years in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Enjoying a considerable following in different parts of the country, he has been allowed to return to the political arena. However, the war may not abate as a result of the pact that detractors view as an affront to Hekmatyar’s victims.

His coming into the equation will mean the addition of another Pakhtun strongman to the tenuous political balance. He is expected to re-establish himself in Kabul and take up an honorary post in the government, whose leaders — Abdullah and Vice President Abdur Rashid Dostum — complain of being denied any say in decision-making or key appointments.

During the jihad against the Soviet Union, Washington lionised the Hezb-i-Islami chief as a hero and gave him dollops of dollars and weapons in aid. But in 2003, the US declared him a “specially de­sig­nated global terrorist” be­cause of his complicity in terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and Taliban. The UN followed suit by putting him on the sanctions list.

Aversion to the agreement pri­marily stems from allegations that rocket ba­rrages by HiG fighters ru­ined much of the ce­ntral capital du­ring the civil strife in the early 1990s. The faction was also accused of killing thousands of its rivals, civilians, assassinations and kidnappings, brutalities that earned Hekmatyar the nickname of Kabul’s Butcher No 1. Later, the outfit ganged up with Al Qaeda and Taliban against the Afghan government and international troops.

But critics should not forget the unpalatable reality that almost all Afghan jihadi figures — Tajik, Pakhtun, Uzbek and Hazara — tortured their opponents ruthlessly, committed war crimes and trampled on human rights. In a word, they are tarred with the same brush. Many of them have since been granted amnesty and offered top governmental slots.

Now that he has embraced Afghanistan’s constitution and pledged disarming the party’s armed wing, Hekmatyar’s return to mainstream politics should not trigger a hullabaloo. He should convince the main political actors how Afghanistan could be better off without a foreign military presence.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn September 25th, 2016