Context & Culture

Gulbuddin ante portas – again (Updated)


After the Soviet troop had withdrawn in early 1989, leaflets turned up in Kabul signed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announcing that he would ride into Kabul on the back of a white horse and pray in Pul-e Kheshti mosque. That made many Kabulis shiver. They said that the mujahedin leader was ‘worse than the Russians’ and would take revenge on everyone who had stayed with the ‘puppet government’. My neighbour, a Leningrad-trained former army officer who has resigned in 1979 in protest against the Soviet occupation, said he would pack his bags and leave. Now, Hekmatyar might be on his way to Kabul again.

These were the ‘first confirmed direct contacts’ between the Afghan President and any of the Afghan armed insurgent groups: A five-member delegation of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami (also known as HIG) has been received by Hamed Karzai in his presidential palace in Kabul on Monday morning, the second day of the Afghan New Year 1389. Spokesmen of both sides have confirmed that the meeting was held  (see some news reportsherehere and in French here).
The group had arrived in at least two bunches, according to MP Khaled Faruqi from Paktika, ten and a few days ago. It was led by former first deputy prime minister (under pre-1996 interim President Burhanuddin Rabbani) Qutbuddin Helal. It also included Hekmatyar’s son-in-law Ghairat Bahir, former HIG spokesman Qarib-ur-Rahman Saeed and Daud Abedi, an US-based Afghan who acted as a HIG envoy earlier this year and was reported to be in contact with US envoy Richard Holbrooke’s team. Bahir had been arrested in Pakistan in October 2002, handed over to US troops and later to Kabul and was only released on 29 May 2008 through a decree of President Karzai. Faruqi(*), a relative of Hekmatyar, is also the former leader of a Hezb wing registered as a political party in Afghanistan in 2005 behind which party deputy chief Hilal was suspected.

Nothing has been said yet on what exactly was discussed and whether there were any results of the Monday meeting in the presidential palace. HIG, however, had presented a 15-point peace plan two days earlier, titled the ‘Manifest for National Security’. It includes HIG’s long-standing demand (reported first in October 2006) of a ‘clear timeframe’ for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, now demanded to begin in July this year and to be finished after six months. This sounds a bit like what had been agreed about the Soviet forces in 1987 but needed 18 months for implementation (by February 1989). The size of these forces was roughly the same as that of the current NATO/ISAF troops: around 130,000.

The other points of the HIG peace plan are as follows:
2) immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from the cities and other densely populated areas and concentration in military bases;
3) all security affairs handed over to ANA and ANP; foreign troops stop all independent military operations including house searches and arrests;
4) continuation of the current government and parliament till after new elections are held, with exception of persons that were involved in corruption, treason and war crimes; leadership of armed forces to be formed from people that had not participated in civil war [possibly a reference to the pre-Taleban era fighting];
5) establishment of a seven-member national security council, agreed by all groups, to take decisions on all security matters; to be based in one of the provinces that is controlled by Afghan forces and without foreign troop presence;
6) simultaneous new elections for the presidency, parliament and provincial councils after the foreign withdrawal in spring 2011, based on proportional representation;
7) ministers and governors can only run if they step down three months before;
8) proportional representation of all groups in the first cabinet, based on the share of received votes, followed by vote of confidence by the parliament; next government does not need to be such a coalition government;
9) only parties and alliances with more than 10 per cent of the vote can participate in following elections;
10) ceasefire and release of all prisoners in the meantime [up to the elections?]; all forces renounce ‘illegitimate’ ways to achieve power;
11) the first elected parliament will decide about a new constitution prepared by the three state powers;
12) foreign power barred from running prisons on Afghan soil, to arrest, try and deport Afghans for trial abroad;
13) drug traffickers, corrupt officials, those who looted national property and war criminals will be tried on the basis of the Sharia;
14) no foreign fighters [al-Qaida?] after the withdrawal of foreign troops;
15) joint defence against those Afghans and foreigners who oppose reconciliation and continue the war.

(source: Pashto text on www.Loyafghanistan.af; working translation: Thomas Ruttig and Gran Hewad, The Frontier Post (Peshawar) published a translation, to be found here.)

Finally, HIG also encouragea the Taleban to enter into similar negotiations ‘for the well-being of the country’, according to its best-known spokesman, Harun Zarghun.

Both groups’ relations were ambivalent at best over the past years. They started as rivals when the Taleban emerged in the mid-1990s and absorbed many of Hekmatyar’s fighters. Hekmatyar had to give up his headquarters in Chahrasyab, south of Kabul, under their first their onslaught in early 1995 and to flee the country a year later when they took Kabul. Subsequently, HIG lost Pakistan’s support, in favour of the Taleban, and, when it supported the Saddam regime in Iraq during the First Gulf War, also that of the US who had channeled around half of its support to the Afghan mujahedin to HIG. Not invited to the Bonn talks in 2001, Hekmatyar went to Iran (where his family still lives) but was expelled from there in February 2002, only some months after the Bonn conference where Iran had constructively cooperated with the US. He stated that he went back ‘to fight in Afghanistan’ but was believed to shuttle between Kunar and Chitral, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies on the Pakistani side of the border. He reportedly entered into a tacit alliance with the Taleban as early as in late October 2001, after 9/11 and the start of the US attacks on Afghanistan. In an interview in 2006 with al-Hayat newspaper, Hekmatyar said:

‘We issued clear instructions to the Mojaheddin in Hezb-e Eslami to help anyone acting against the occupation in their areas. We respect and appreciate the efforts everyone is exerting in this direction. I admit to you, as head of the Hezb-e Eslami organization here, that there is not, very unfortunately, comprehensive and full coordination in all the fields and fronts with “Al-Qa’idah” and Taleban at the leaders’ level though this is present at the individuals’ level in the various areas and we back it and wish it to spread and broaden. […] We negotiated with the Taleban on the various issues. But, very unfortunately, we have not reached an official agreement so far. The brothers in Taleban are acting alone and independently and we are acting alone and independently too.’

In a video response to questions by the AP published on 8 March 2007, Hekmatyar announced that he had ended the cooperation with the Taleban again because ‘certain elements among the Taliban rejected the idea of a joint struggle against the aggressor’. He linked this with a statement of readiness for talks with the Karzai government: ‘We say that dialogue can only be fruitful if the aggressors truly allow the Kabul government to halt the fighting, negotiate with the mujahedeen and honor what Kabul and the resistance decide’ (see report here).

Earlier this March, Hezb and Taleban clashed in Baghlan province with 60 fighters reported killed. As of late, after the arrest of ‘talkative’ Taleban leaders, Pakistan’s ISI seems to have put some money back on the ‘Gulbuddin card’. In February 2003, he called for suicide attacks against US troops in Afghanistan – as was subsequently declared a ‘worldwide terrorist’ by the Bush administration (his party, however was not put on the list of terrorist organisations) – a call he extended to all ‘invaders’ in 2005. In 2008, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called for a war crimes tribunal against Hekmatyar. In January 2009, Arab al-Arabiya TV broadcast a message from Hekmatyar stating that ‘Afghans must attack American troops present in Afghanistan in support of the Palestinians in Gaza’ (see the report here).

The rather preferential treatment for the HIG delegation by its reception at the highest possible level in Kabul now, however, might indicate that talks had already been held before and possibly progressed to a certain extent.

Indeed, there were numerous rumours about HIG delegations secretly coming to Kabul for talks since, latest, May 2008. And the latest Kabul meeting was preceded by a whole series of HIG delegations travelling abroad (Bahir reportedly went to Pakistan after his release and to the UK, France and Germany in January 2009) as well as by the party’s ‘rehabilitation’ in some British and Pakistani media as ‘moderate Islamists’. A not too important German newspaper even called HIG a group ‘with social democrat leanings’. (This information was not attributed but it is assumed that it came from a Germany-based Afghan lawyer who positioned himself as an intermediary for the victims of a German-requested airstrike on two fuel tankers hijacked by Taleban in Kunduz province on 3 September 2009 by which many civilians were killed; the lawyer is locally known for his HIG connections.)

On 5 November 2008, the Washington Post reported that ‘[t] op U.S. military officials have indicated in recent weeks a willingness to cut deals with rebel commanders like Hekmatyar to take insurgents off the battlefield’ (Candace Rondeaux, ‘Afghan Rebel Positioned for Key Role’, see here). Another report even said that HIG emissaries had met members of US special envoy Holbrooke’s team (see here). On 21 January this year, the Wall Street Journal reports that Hekmatyar’s peace plan ‘could be the most promising avenue to peace’ (see report here).

On 7 May 2008, President Karzai’s then spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, was quoted as saying ‘that the government was “optimistic” about opening talks in the “near or far future” with Hekmatyar’ – only to be contradicted by a HIG spokesman (‘Hekmatyar peace-talks”’baseless propaganda”’, www.quqnoos.com, 7 May 2008). On 13 May 2008, Tolu TV (Kabul) reported that Hekmatyar had dispatched a letter to President Karzai – one of a series of three, at least, in both directions. This also was denied. Only three weeks later, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law Ghairat Baheer was released from Kabul’s Pul-e Charkhi jail and, as to Maulawi Attaullah Ludin, Hezb’s unofficial parliamentary leader, immediately received by Karzai, cabinet ministers and members of the legal Hezb wing (see report here). In January 2009, the release of Gulbuddin’s son Salahuddin followed. In February 2009, al-Jazeera reported that Hekmatyar would be offered asylum in Saudi Arabia in talks, after which he would be allowed to return to Afghanistan with immunity from prosecution (see report here).

Finally, as of late, his second son-in-law of Hekmatyar, Humayun Jarir, the leader of the former Cyprus group that had participated in the 2001 Afghanistan talks in Bonn, had participated in – and possibly initiated – a meeting with Afghan MPs (amongst them some known to be members of Hezb-e Islami), other HIG members and even two Islamic scholars from Peshawar said to be close to the Taleban, on the Maldives in January 2010. It is not clear, however, whether this was a side – or even a competing – event or part of a concerted effort for talks with HIG.

Meanwhile, HIG had claimed responsibility for an attack on President Karzai’s life during a military parade in April 2008 and for a rocket attack on the Kabul Serena Hotel in November 2009.

Despite a general feeling that the decades long bloodshed should be stopped, the news of these talks will surely make many in Kabul and beyond feel uneasy. Kabulis have not forgotten how their capital was destroyed by Hekmatyar’s daily random rocket fire in 1993/94 – while the Hezb leader was officially Prime Minister under Rabbani but blocked from entering the city by his deadly enemy, the then Defence Minister, late commander Ahmad Shah Massud. According to amnesty international, 20,000 civilians died during the rocket attacks. When he returned to this position for a short tenure still under Rabbani in May 1996 (when the Taleban were already approaching Kabul), Hekmatyar enforced some version of the Sharia in Kabul, including ‘Islamic dress’ for women, including the ban of high heels for its distractive clicking sound, of music and female announcers on Afghan radio and TV as well as the closure of all cinemas, all measures later attributed to the Taleban.

In 2006, in a portrait of Hekmatyar published by the Jamestown foundation the former Taleban official-turned-political analyst Wahid Muzhda quoted Maulawi Yunos Khalis as saying about the Hezb leader: ‘I pray to god to let Hekmatyar live among us in Pakistan, but I don’t want him with us in Afghanistan because he would not let anyone, other than himself, become the country’s leader’ (Omid Marzban, ‘Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: From Holy Warrior to Wanted Terrorist’, see here).

 

(*) Faruqi is the former leader of a wing of Hezb-e Islami that had been registered as a political party in Afghanistan in November 2005, after more than a year of preliminary talks. It claimed that it had broken with Hekmatyar and his politics, publicly announced its support for Karzai’s government, agreed to work ‘in the framework of the constitution’ and distanced itself from violence, terrorism and drug cultivation. Faruqi still claimed that his group as talking ‘on behalf of [the entire] Hezb-e Islami’. The dissociation, however, did not come immediately. Initially, the group had submitted a registration request under the original name and emblem (including the original founding date of 1975) of Hekmatyar’s party, and left blank the space in the registration form for the name of the leader. This was rejected, the party requested to change its name and to name a leader in order to show that it was no stopgap for Hekmatyar. Even though only the latter instruction was carried out the party was finally recognised. Hekmatyar distanced himself by calling it ‘a small group of nobodies’ that was forced to announce support for ‘Kabul’s American government’. The party is still ambivalent about its status. In an interview with the author, a leading party member insisted in 2006 that the leadership had irreversibly distanced itself from Hekmatyar but also admitted that the party rank-and-file did not accept that this was a separate party organisation. It claims all former Hezbis as its members and convened a party shura meeting with its – old – provincial heads in September 2006. At a party conference in July 2008 in Kabul, Hezb members celebrated Hekmatyar’s name in slogans. Many Afghan observers therefore believe that the split is artificial and that the group might be a Trojan horse inside the Karzai administration – an embodiment of a two-pronged HIG strategy: exerting military pressure on the Karzai government and its international allies while infiltrating the political institutions in Kabul. Hezb says that is has some 30 members in the lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, which would make it the single strongest party there. (Political party factions are ruled out by law, though.) Faruqi was replaced by MP Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal in June 2007 who recently had been appointed minister for economy in the latest Karzai cabinet. This was already seen as a conciliatory step of Karzai towards HIG.

Before these events, some 300 former HIG members had already been in government positions under President Karzai. This includes former and current ministers like Faruq Wardak and Nematullah Shahrani, Karzai’s current chief of staff Omar Daudzai and almost one third of all provincial governors.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture