Political Landscape

Bomb and Ballot: The many strands and tactics of Hezb-e Islami


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Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan – known as Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin, or HIG, in the West – has (almost) declared support for its former chief negotiator with Kabul as a candidate for the 5 April 2014 presidential election. This comes less than a week after it claimed the latest suicide car bomb attack in Kabul that killed two civilian US contractors and probably Afghan bystanders on 10 February. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig (with input from Borhan Osman) looks at the dynamics of Hezb’s latest political move and its connection with the bombing. He also sheds light on recent developments between HIG, Hezb’s insurgent branch, and its political branch, HIA, illustrating a splintered front and strong competition between presidential contenders for the votes of the Hezbis all over the country – including some skilful manoeuvring from the presidential palace.

The second-largest insurgent group in Afghanistan, Hezb-e Islami’s wing (HIG) that is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1), stated on 15 February 2014 that the party has tentatively decided to support its former chief negotiator with the government in Kabul, Qutbuddin Helal, in his bid for the Afghan presidency on 5 April this year. A press release published on the website of the party’s official newspaper, the daily Shahadat, said the party’s executive committee has taken that decision. It adds, however, that the decision is still pending the approval of the party’s amir (leader). Hekmatyar, however, seems unlikely to reject this.

The official announcement was predictable as it came in the wake of frequent hints for such a move by Hekmatyar’s elder son Habib-ur-Rahman, who is also the leader of HIG’s youth wing. He has increasingly been acting as the party’s mouthpiece over the past months. In his messages on Facebook, he regularly presents his opinions as reflecting what ‘leaders’ or ‘senior members’ think. Hekmatyar has never publicly contradicted him. He had also put out the idea of backing Helal over this channel to be discussed by HIG members inside and outside Afghanistan a week before the official announcement. Hezb observers in Afghanistan and Pakistan that AAN spoke to say Hekmatyar does not want to comment on less important, daily issues and that therefore Habib-ur-Rahman is giving the party’s official view, without explicitly saying so. That the decision is being kept open as long as the Hekmatyar endorsement is still missing might be meant to assuage the hawks in HIG’s own rows who want to continue the military fight and not be part of what has so far been labelled a ‘puppet’ and ‘US-run’ political system. This is not dissimilar to dynamics within the other large insurgent organisation, the Taleban.

Particularly over its participation in elections, HIG has been blowing hot and cold over the past months. In January this year, Hekmatyar still ruled out HIG’s participation in the April 2014 presidential election but urged his party’s members to participate in the provincial council elections:

Hezb-e Islami is not directly taking part in the elections due to the presence of occupation forces but will exercise the right of vote to get those candidates elected who are close to our party and ideology.… Support those candidates who are either related to us or have a positive view about the party.… Defeat and prevent bad people from entering the assemblies.

But HIG has made it clear in its statement that the group’s (indirect) participation in the election did not mean it would give up its armed fight. “A part of Hezb-e Islami will continue its resistance as previously, even with more intensity and strength”, it said.

The 15 February HIG statement also confirmed that its representatives have been in Kabul talking to various candidates, including Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah. Only Helal, however, reportedly accepted the conditions the party had earlier established for supporting the election, namely the full withdrawal of all foreign military forces and opposing the signature of the US-Afghan Bilateral Strategic Agreement. In October last year, Helal had given a somewhat different statement, not fully ruling out a foreign military presence. He said a “presence of foreign troops and the international community must be in the interests of Afghanistan” and spoke of a possible training mission, as opposed  to what he called a “military mission”.

Hekmatyar, in the January statement already quoted above, had urged President Karzai to stand by his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US and combined this with a thinly veiled threat at Karzai’s address: “It would be good … in your last days in rule to compensate [for] the past and leave a good name in the history; you never know when life ends.”

Helal had stayed in Kabul after his last round of talks with the government, still on HIG’s behalf, and has stated that he is running for president on his own. In his first media interviews, he spoke out in favour of changes in the constitution and the establishment of “a divine system of government under Great Allah’s Holy Book”. HIG had initially called his move “his personal initiative”. But when opening his election campaign on 3 February, Helal clearly restated his allegiance to Hekmatyar: “I remain an HIA member under Hekmatyar’s leadership. In Afghanistan, there is only one HIA headed by Hekmatyar”. The endorsement by HIG’s leading body is only the latest turn in the dizzying zig-zags of HIG’s election-related policies (see earlier developments here).

It seems that leaders in HIG hope that even if Helal does not win, he will make it to the second round, where he can press conditions on his competitor that would be good for, as the party says, “the mujahedin”. In their minds, there might be the possibility that other tickets may join in, particularly jihadi leaders Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf and Ismail Khan and possibly even Dr Abdullah, who campaign on the same platform.

Dropping a (real) bomb first

This announcement, a political bombshell, comes less than a week after a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul that killed two civilian US contractors and probably Afghan bystanders on 10 February and was claimed by the same organisation, Hekmatyar’s HIG. The attack happened as an ISAF convoy of armoured cars was leaving Pul-e Charkhi prison, the country’s largest detention facility, in an eastern neighbourhood of Kabul. Exact figures about Afghan casualties were neither available on Afghan nor on international media (see reporting here).

Given demands, including by the Karzai government, that the Taleban renounce violence before peace talks are even accepted (which they still reject, at least with the government in Kabul), it is surprising that the – indirect – participation of HIG has apparently been accepted without any comment. It has appeared for a long time that HIG has been treated by the Afghan government with more understanding than the Taleban and that the hurdles for the party to participate in the political process are even lower than for others.

It is even more surprising as this was not the first time that HIG recently claimed high-profile attacks in the country’s capital and elsewhere. The most damaging of these happened on 16 May last year when a suicide car bomber attacked a military convoy in the populated Karta-ye Naw area in southeastern Kabul, killing 15 people and injuring many more. Among the dead were nine Afghan civilians, including two children, two US soldiers and four civilian US contractors. Even more controversially, the party claimed a female suicide bomber had carried out an attack outside Kabul International Airport on 19 September 2012 that killed twelve civilians, including nine foreigners. In October 2013, it said it had ambushed a US military convoy outside Bagram base, but only the perpetrator with his bomb-rigged motorcycle was killed. In November 2009, HIG claimed responsibility for a rocket attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul that injured four people (Press TV, 22 November 2009). In 2008 and 2009, HIG leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar justified attacks in Afghanistan as support for the Palestinian cause (al-Jazeera, 29 December 2008 and here). (In January 2009, Hekmatyar even offered to send HIG fighters to Palestine, see here.) (2) In April 2008, HIG competed with the Taleban in claiming an attack during the celebration of the 16th anniversary of the mujahedin victory; President Karzai narrowly escaped unharmed, but some honorary guests on the stands next to the military parade ground opposite the Idgah mosque were killed.

The upsurge in HIG attacks – while a long way from the Taleban’s intensity – is not coincidental with Afghanistan’s preparations for the withdrawal of NATO combat troops by the end of this year and presidential and provincial council elections looming in less than two months’ time. With the latest attack, Hezb-e Islami is trying to make its influence felt before these events. Spectacular attacks in Kabul, where some Western media are still represented and where their journalists will pick them up, project more military power than HIG currently commands.

HIG, in the 1980s, was arguably the strongest mujahedin party fighting the Soviets (or at least the biggest recipient of Western and Arab financial and military aid). It has since drastically lost influence in the field. Many HIG commanders went over to the Taleban during the latter’s first march on Kabul (which was completed in 1996), pushing Hekmatyar into a last minute alliance with the group’s arch-enemy Jamiat, then led by Interim President Borhanuddin Rabbani and commander Ahmad Shah Massud, who were ruling in Kabul. It was even HIG commanders who, in Sarobi east of Kabul, opened the way for the Taleban to Kabul. Others joined after the 2001 US-led intervention, either because the label ‘Taleban’ was less tainted than that of HIG or to pragmatically build local alliances. A number of former HIG commanders is still fighting in the Taleban ranks. And although Monday’s attack might suggest otherwise, Hekmatyar’s current push is more for political influence, to compensate for his military decline (see earlier AAN analysis by Borhan Osman here).

The attacks also aim at increasing HIG’s credentials as a ‘nationalist’ (i.e. anti-foreigner) force, by hitting ISAF/NATO troops but avoiding Afghan forces (HIG’s 2010 peace plan (see more below) even includes the demand that “all security affairs [be] handed over to ANA and ANP”, echoing the current security transition and justifying these attacks as ridding Afghanistan of foreign influence. Already in January last year Hekmatyar stated that “we want the sovereignty of Afghanistan protected – something that lies in a complete pull-out of foreign troops.” He added that if Kabul and Washington sign a security pact which gives judicial immunity to US forces in Afghanistan, his party will be left with no other option but continued resistance and war (Fars News Agency, 27 January 2013 and here). He repeated this in his August 2013 Eid-ul Fitr message where he announced that “the only solution is to continue the jihad until all the foreign forces fully leave Afghanistan.” Similarly, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, an Afghan MP known to be close to Hekmatyar, recently called for a jihad against the US forces, after another air strike (which apparently was called in by, or happened at least in coordination with, Afghan forces) caused civilian casualties in his home province of Parwan. On a video circulating in Kabul he said, “jihad is legitimate against the US, and silence against the US is an act in violation of religion, I am obligated to tell you”.

Replacing democracy with a sharia-parties-only ‘pluralism’?

On the political front, HIG has resumed pushing for an accommodation with President Hamed Karzai’s government that would give it a share of power, or at least would enlarge its footprint in the government’s structures. After a previous round of talks ended without a conclusion in May 2013, contacts were renewed in November last year. Afghanistan’s High Peace Council also pushed for talks with HIG. In that body – with Qazi Amin Waqad (a Hezb leader in its early years but now officially party-less) and spokesman Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid – two Hezbis play key roles. Hekmatyar’s main negotiator is again his son-in-law Ghairat Bahir. (3) Bahir reportedly also held talks with several presidential candidates.

HIG’s strategy is based on a four-year-old peace plan (AAN’s translation of the plan is in this dispatch), the main points of which are demands for a full withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of an interim government that is to organise new elections based on proportional representation. The plan also reveals an interpretation of democracy that would replace the current formally open pluralistic system with mujahedin– and sharia-only ‘pluralism’. Hekmatyar speaks of Islamic parties only, saying that corruption and war crimes should be punished under Islamic law and that he wants elections “under Islamic rules”. (4) Additionally, he proposes the installation of a seven-member national security council, agreed upon by “all groups”, which sounds like a revival of the 1980s mujahedin alliance known as the Peshawar Seven, or haftganah in Dari. Its rule started in 1992, was mainly characterised by conflict between the seven parties and led to the outbreak of new civil war in the second half of that year. He also seems to envision that, under such a framework, HIG would be soon in power when he says: “the next government does not need to be such a coalition government.” Furthermore, only parties and alliances that achieve more than ten per cent of the vote “can participate in following elections” (see an AAN translation here).

Of course, Hezb already has a good foothold in Kabul. There are ministers (5),  provincial governors, a large group in the parliament’s lower house, various presidential advisor posts (Paktia Governor Juma Khan Hamdard, former HIG Intelligence Chief Wahidullah Sabawun and others) and the president’s chef de cabinet, Abdul Karim Khorram (see also this CAPS report). “Arguably, Karzai has wittingly or unwittingly aligned himself with this radical Islamic party,” veteran Afghanistan watcher Marvin Weinbaum of the Washington-based Middle East Institute recently wrote. “The influence of Hezb-i-Islami also reaches into the bureaucracy, and its members are well represented in the national and several provincial assemblies.”

If what the HIA spokesman was quoted as saying last July is correct, this alliance is not so unwitting. According to spokesman Abdullah Kamawal, party leader Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal had been appointed minister of economy as part of what he called a power-sharing plan. This points to preferential treatment of Hezb-e Islami. Previously, President Karzai has actively encouraged cabinet members to lay down positions as party leaders, as in the case with former commerce minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi (Afghan Mellat) or discouraged them from engaging in parties, particular those not belonging to tanzims (mujahedin factions). (6)

Among the key people in this alliance is Attaullah Ludin, who had been Hezb’s parliamentary leader but then was appointed chairman of the anti-corruption office by President Karzai. Since last November, he has governed the eastern province of Nangarhar. With its large population, Nangarhar is a key province in the upcoming elections and at the same time the centre of Hezb’s largest constituency in eastern Afghanistan, which additionally includes Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan.

HIG also has a foot in the door of the Afghan Local Police (ALP). A January 2014 report by Open Democracy says that Afghan officials and US Special Forces ‘allegedly’ have armed and integrated HIG members into this government-controlled auxiliary force in Wardak province. At the same time, the New York Times wrote that “Hezb-i-Islami loyalists in the Karzai administration” were behind the president’s decision “to ban American Special Operations forces” from Wardak province last spring, after reports of extrajudicial killings on a US base came up. In addition, Hezbis were also accepted into ALP units in Baghlan. Meanwhile in Nangarhar, under governor and HIA deputy leader Ludin, the ALP has just been expanded to six more districts. The ALP also will play a key role in election security, particularly in areas contested between the government and insurgents – as it was conceived in these areas in the first place. It was also in these contested areas in particular where there was a lot of manipulation during the 2009 and 2010 elections.

A splintered front

But not everyone is pulling together in Hezb yet. First, there is the ostensibly formal split between the insurgent HIG and the registered legal party that carries the same official name, Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (HIA) (find more about the history of that split in our earlier dispatch here). This has resulted in both wings supporting different candidates at the moment: HIG supports Helal, Arghandiwal’s HIA supports Dr Abdullah. Arghandiwal’s deputy, Engineer Muhammad Khan, is one of Abdullah’s two running mates (the full list of candidates here).

But Arghandiwal’s influence is already shrinking. HIG reacted sharply to the political branch’s – meaning the HIA’s, led by Arghandiwal – unlikely coalition with Jamiat’s Dr Abdullah, a political arch-enemy since the time of the anti-Soviet war, saying, “It is against the party’s reputation to be part of such an alliance. [Hezb-e Islami] will not support such faces as they are in the service of enemies and who support and insist on the stay of foreign troops.” A spokesman for Arghandiwal’s group, in turn, said Helal was not their candidate.

Apart from that, there is at least one more significant splinter party, Sabawun’s United Islamic Party of Afghanistan (Hezb-e Muttahed-e Islami-ye Afghanistan), registered in 2006. This party – at a joint meeting with some other senior HIA members – declared on 9 February it would not support Dr Abdullah, but it is still stopping short of endorsing Helal, while perhaps waiting for Hekmatyar’s final verdict. (There is also a – now almost defunct – HIA sub-faction led by Muhammad Khaled Faruqi who was the party’s first leader in 2004; he was – not fully voluntarily – replaced after a party congress in 2007 by Arghandiwal but did not officially leave the party.) (7)

Besides former HIG Intelligence Chief Wahidullah Sabawun, Paktia’s Governor Hamdard belongs to this group. In his case, local politics in his home province of Balkh might provide an explanation for his distance from the Dr Abdullah ticket: he is an arch-rival of Jamiat’s number one in the Afghan north, Balkh Governor Muhammad Atta who backs Abdullah. Sabawun, although a minister in the United Front’s (UF) (8) anti-Taleban government based in northeastern Afghanistan in the 1990s, had a serious run-in with the still UF-dominated security organs of the early Karzai period in April 2002 when hundreds of Hezbis were arrested under the accusation of plotting a coup.

Hamdard and Sabawun, however, are also keeping the option open to rally behind the – still undeclared – favourite of the presidential camp. With Nangarhar’s Governor Ludin, another HIA vice chairman is already drifting in this direction after his appointment by Karzai. Karzai has repeatedly been successful in manoeuvring possible challengers or leaders of opposition parties into his own camp, as shown by the examples of recently appointed Interior Minister Omar Daudzai and Foreign Affairs Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel; the former, linked to Hezb as well, had intended to stand for president himself. With influential Hezb members in his closest entourage plus Ludin (with his considerable following in parliament and influence in the eastern provinces) and possibly the group including Hamdard and Sabawun whose positions as provincial governor and advisor-minister are also dependent on the president, Karzai seems to be pulling the majority of HIA and some of HIG over to his side. With Helal in the middle, there is the potential for a grand Karzai-HIA/HIG alliance. (HIG/HIA still has the option to go without Karzai, too.) In any case, Dr Abdullah’s ticket, seen as the main challenger for a pro-Karzai candidate by many inside and outside Afghanistan, seems to be coming out weakened. If Karzai plays it well, he could even take the steam out of Hekmatyar’s personal political push. (9)

This politicking might be behind President Karzai’s failure so far to condemn HIG’s 10 February attack in Pul-e Charkhi (10) and the lack of hurdles put in front of HIG for a return into the political fray. The latter is not surprising given the many Hezbis already in key positions in Kabul, who participate in formulating (if not dominating) these policies and who can be expected to be sympathetic towards those former comrades who still remain part of the insurgency. Despite its almost two decades-long reduction in the military field, Hezb-e Islami’s double strategy of joining the institutions in Kabul and fighting them at the same time might finally pay out – with or without Hekmatyar.

 

(1) The official name of HIG is Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (HIA). This acronym, however, is used in this text for a second wing of the party that has registered under this name as a legal political party in Kabul, distancing itself (but keeping contact at the same time) from HIG. HIA (Kabul) also insists there is only one Hezb-e Islami. (More background on HIG and HIA here, here and here.)

(2) This is not unlike Hezb’s backing of Saddam Hussain during the first US-Iraqi Gulf War, a step that finally cost the party the US, and subsequently Pakistani, support it had enjoyed since the 1980s’ fight against the Soviet occupation. Hezb, seen as the most effective fighting force, had received the lion’s share of the billions of US and Saudi aid for the mujahedin.

(3) Bahir was released after six years in US custody in Bagram in May 2006 in order to facilitate talks with HIG.

(4) In a 2010 interview with German TV ZDF, transcript with the author.

(5) The latest addition is Mohammad Akbar Barakzai, the new mines and industries minister.

(6) Tanzim (organisation) is the local term for the classical (i.e. 1970/80s) mujahedin ‘parties’ who fought against the Soviets, i.e. the ‘Peshawar Seven’ and the ‘Tehran Eight’. Hezb-e Islami belonged to the Sunni ‘Peshawar Seven’, the others being Jamiat-e Islami (led by Rabbani, Massud), Nehjat (Mojaddedi), NIFA (Gailani), Harakat (Nabi Muhammadi), Ittehad (Sayyaf) and an early Hezb-e Islami breakaway (Yunus Khales). Most of the Shia ‘Tehran Eight’ merged into Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami in the late 1980s. Only Harakat-e Islami (Mohseni, Anwari) stayed separate. Second Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili was the leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami while serving in this position, Planning Minister Seyyed Hossain Anwari led his Harakat-e Islami faction while being agriculture minister and governor of Herat and Kabul subsequently, and First Vice President and former Defence Minister Qasim Fahim, former Foreign and Interior Ministers Dr Abdullah and Qanuni as well as former Water and Power Minister Ismail Khan were known as leading Jamiat members while in those positions.

(7) [Corrected on 19 May 2016:] There is also Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (Khales), one of the seven Pakistan-based mujahedin parties then. It is often called a splinter group of Hekmatyar’s Hezb but in fact emerged independently of it in the late 1970s. HIA (Khales) continues to exist, and although it is not officially registered in Afghanistan it declared its support for Ashraf Ghani as presidential candidate on 17 February. Its current leader is Haji Din Muhammad, a former governor of Nangrahar and Kabul under Karzai, then director of his 2009 presidential campaign.

(8) Full name: United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (UIFSA), better known as ‘Northern Alliance’, but the latter term is disliked by the UF.

(9) There were rumours in Kabul during HIG’s earlier attempts to achieve a deal with the Karzai government that Hekmatyar is willing to return to the country and, in return, to accept to refrain from taking political office. This, again, opens two options: he might end up further sidelined politically, or he may attempt to play the grey eminency and try a comeback into office later.

(10) Helal also failed to do so and, in his first interview as presidential candidate, called attacks on foreign forces a “reaction” to aggressive NATO bombing tactics. In 2011, although Helal had condemned suicide attacks, he said that the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan was their only cause and that “the attacks won’t stop until the forces quit the country”. During the HIG delegation’s visit to Kabul in November last year, one member, Karim Amin, the group’s representative in France, told a Kabul-based TV station that the party only apologises that “some civilians” have been killed during its war against foreign forces. Karim Amin had attended the June 2012 Track II meeting with Taleban representatives in France on behalf of HIG and will represent his party at an international peace conference on Afghanistan in April in Strasbourg that is organised by German and French peace groups, the European Left faction in the European Parliament and Afghan leftist groups. He regularly videotapes interviews with HIG leader Hekmatyar and posts them, see, for example, here and here).

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape, War & Peace