Political Landscape

Adding the Ballot to the Bullet? Hezb-e Islami in transition


In a dramatic change of mind, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar recently announced that his Hezb-e Islami will participate in next year’s election to ‘defeat the enemy’ in the political arena, too. With this statement, he is relinquishing his original position that foreign troops must leave the country prior to any political accommodation between his party and the Afghan government. AAN’s researcher Borhan Osman has talked to Hezbis from Hekmatyar’s party and its splinter groups to learn why this shift in Hekmatyar’s approach has arisen now and what it means for the military and political landscape ahead of the upcoming election. He concludes that Hekmatyar, whose faction has been weakened both militarily and politically over the past twelve years, has no viable option but to gather the scattered former loyalists he once condemned for ‘surrendering to the Americans’ in order to lead them into the election. If Hekmatyar really were to stage a return to non-violent politics, it is in fact highly likely that this would unify the different groups and politicians who were once part of the original Hezb-e Islami. (With additional reporting by Thomas Ruttig.)

 

Unlike the Taleban who have always refused to talk to the Afghan government, calling it a ‘puppet’ regime, the second-largest group of the insurgents,Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known by the abbreviation HIG in the western vernacular, has publicly reached out to it, beginning in March 2010.(1) Since then, it has sent 17 delegations to Kabul, some of which also met President Hamed Karzai in the palace. With the government prioritising bringing the Taleban to the negotiation table, however, negotiations with Hezb-e Islami reached a deadlock despite the latter’s openness to talks and flexibility on terms of a possible political accomodation – indeed, a successful deal may have actually brought an end to HIG’s role in the insurgency. To bypass this current stalemate, HIG is now trying to modify its narrative about the situation, thereby enabling a change in its terms for returning to politics, with its eye specifically on the election.

Elections, inter-Afghan dialogue and national unity have become the mantra in Hekmatyar’s recent statements and interviews. This feeds into the HIG leader’s new narrative that victory against the world’s remaining superpower, the United States, and NATO has almost been achieved. (The party also prides itself on its key role in defeating the other former superpower, the Soviet Union.) According to this narrative, Afghans’ jehad has brought America and its allies to the verge of breakdown, as was the case with the Soviets. This new rhetoric refers positively to two important events next year: the withdrawal of foreign forces and the presidential election.

Hekmatyar’s first hint of his participation in the election came in an interview with an Arab TV channel in early April and was immediately published in HIG’s newspaper and on its website (transcript here, in Pashto). Hekmatyar stated it was the job of HIG’s executive board to decide about any participation in the election, but then made it clear that he had already set his mind on contesting the polls.

Political and military impasses

A reworking of its perception of and, more so, its narrative about the situation helps the HIG to extricate itself from the impasse it has reached both militarily and politically. On the political side, HIG was not able to reach any agreement with the government during its many meetings in Kabul between March 2010 and May 2012, nor did the government respond to Hekmatyar’s 15-point peace plan, first publicised by Hezb in September 2008, but brought to the negotiation table in March 2010. In May 2012, as Ghairat Bahir, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and currently his second-in-command(2), told AAN, the party suspended talks with the government in objection to its signing of the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) (read an earlier AAN report about the controversy here).(3) Although some Hezb representatives have visited Kabul since this suspension, the party’s envoys have no longer met with government officials as part of formal negotiations. Instead, they have tried to reach out to western civilian and military officials, Afghan politicians and former mujahedin rivals.(4)

Hezbis who spoke to AAN blame the failure of talks in May 2012 on the ‘dishonesty and breach of promises’ by the Kabul government and, more specifically, on Kabul’s rejection of HIG’s terms for peace, principally, the full withdrawal of foreign troops before any deal. This was similar to the Taleban’s position. The Karzai government’s reason for cold-shouldering HIG’s peace overtures is its priority to reconcile with the Taleban, who constitute the bulk of the insurgency. Its approach to talks with the two groups seems to be based on the rationale that if the Taleban are reconciled, it would easier to deal with the smaller Hezb-e Islami.

The government’s disinterest in striking a deal with HIG is also grounded in the fact that it has already been able to lure a faction of former Hezb-e Islami and many of its individual members into the current political system. Hezb’s case is strikingly different from that of the Taleban who have almost no former senior members present in the Karzai government and have refused to establish a political party. In late 2005, a group of members of the party’s former leadership registered a party under the original name,Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (HIA).(5) (This is also still the official name of ‘HIG’.) It is currently led by the Minister of Economy Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal and has aligned itself with the president in the past elections. According to Arghandiwal’s deputy Muhammad Khan, it holds three ministries – the other two being the Ministry of Education (with Faruq Wardak as minister) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (Asef Rahimi) – and has 47 members in both houses of parliament as well as almost one quarter of the 420 members of all provincial councils.

In order to be able to finally register in 2005, the party’s leaders needed to distance themselves from Hekmatyar, which they did after a tug-of-war.(6) However, this move failed to convince many Afghans who suspect that both ‘factions’ are pursuing the same strategy, namely to take over power, via different means. Statements from each of the two major Hezb factions about its relationship with the other have been consistently contradictory, depending on the context they addressed. Moreover, both Bahir in Peshawar (for HIG) and Muhammad Khan in Kabul (for the registered Hezb faction) have implied in their interviews with AAN that there is only one Hezb-e Islami and no splinter groups. This, of course, conflicts with the pre-condition of the registration of Hezb’s Kabul wing and also contradicts earlier statements of the Kabul-based faction that Hekmatyar could not return to work under the party’s name.(7)

To further weaken Hekmatyar’s camp, the government has also effectively managed to buy out some key associates of the Hezb leader through its peace and reintegration programme. The most important of these is Qutbuddin Helal who until late 2011 was head of HIG’s political committee and led many of the party’s delegations to Kabul; he was also the first deputy prime minister under pre-1996 interim President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Helal also had a key role in securing the release of Bahir from US detention in Bagram in 2008, after which the latter emerged as Hekmatyar’s ‘special representative’ and ultimately head of the political branch around early 2012, effectively pushing Helal into the background. While Helal told AAN he still maintains his allegiance to Hekmatyar as his amir, multiple sources in HIG and HIA said that Helal had defied Hekmatyar’s order by remaining in Kabul after completing a mission for which he was sent in early April.

Helal’s mission was to consult the various Hezb splinter parties and individuals(8) to help form a united political platform. While the other three members of the delegation returned to Pakistan, Helal rented a large office in Karta-ye Seh, near parliament, and a house in Shahrak-e Telayi near the Kabul airport. Kabul-based Hezbis told AAN that Helal was put on the HPC’s highest salary tier in addition to receiving rent allowances. Helal described his cooperation with HPC as voluntary. He regularly receives tribal elders and former jehadi commanders, including non-Hezbis, mainly from Loya Paktia from where he hails. Some of the tribal elders told AAN that Helal mainly talks about the unity of Afghans (especially Pashtuns) ahead of the 2014 transition.

Others close to Hekmatyar who could not resist the lure of HPC salaries and free housing include the HIG leader’s younger brother Shahabuddin Hekmatyar and the chief of the party’s cultural committee Sultan Mahmud Salah. Reconciling the former, though, had only symbolic value since he had never held an official position in HIG. (However, he lost one of his sons in fighting with foreign troops in Wardak.) Salah was also once a member of an HIG delegation that held talks with an HPC delegation in Islamabad in 2011.

Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami did not fare better on the battlefield. It has lost territory and even fighters to the Taleban in areas considered to be the HIG’s heartland, such as Tagab district in Kapisa and Nerkh district in Wardak. Fighting between the two insurgent organisations in Baghlan and Andar also often resulted in the Hezbis either being overwhelmed by the Taleban, or defecting to the government.

These events together with the defection of key political HIG personnel to the ‘peace process’, condemned by Hekmatyar as ‘surrendering to the Americans’, have exhausted what was once the party’s mainstream. By now, the HIG leadership has largely become a family affair, with sons and sons-in-law in deputy positions, but even in this regard, Kabul has made inroads. Hence, the prospect of remaining in absolute political and military opposition to the Karzai government does not look particularly attractive for the HIG leader.

Changing positions

Hekmatyar, probably feeling this pressure more than anyone else, has therefore found it necessary to change his approach. This is evident in the shift in his rhetoric away from his previous emphasis on the ‘inevitable defeat of the United States and NATO’ and ‘the imminent victory of the mujahedin’ now that the withdrawal has been agreed for 2014. In a long statement on the 35th anniversary of the Saur Revolution in late April this year, he declared this new vision:

We are at a very sensitive period of jehad. NATO forces are packing their bags. Some have already left while others are preparing to leave. Many believe that the puppet Kabul administration would collapse soon after… It is probable that all foreign occupation forces will withdraw by the end of 2014 which seems a strong likelihood… It is also a probability that some military units of the United States and few other countries will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014… With regard to these scenarios, the mujahedin have these options ahead: Boycotting the election in the cases of both full and partial withdrawal of the foreign forces. The result of this decision would be that the Americans would easily put their favourite [presidential] candidate in the Arg and would call him an elected president. They would also buy some sell-outs in the name of Hezb-e Islami and Taleban for dollars and few wretched posts. They would participate in the election in the name of Hezb-e Islami and Taleban, but they would have been made to vote a [loser] candidate…to tell the nation that the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami failed to get majority of the votes.

In the case a limited number of foreign forces stays and the puppet government of Kabul grants them legal immunity, then Hezb-e Islami [opts for] supporting a candidate closer to its policies and relatively better than others who would be certainly made a winner easily and with overwhelming majority [including Hezb’s support]. In this case, Hezb-e Islami will continue its jehad in the battle field on one side, while it will badly defeat the enemy in the political field on the other. The upcoming government will decide about full withdrawal of the foreign forces. This will pave the way for us to obtain the overwhelming majority in the next parliament.’

In this statement, Hekmatyar modified his previous position, wherein the full withdrawal of foreign forces was the precondition for accepting the current political order, reducing it to the drawdown of international forces and the election next year, which will happen regardless of Hezb’s involvement. Talking the situation up this way and changing the terms for a political rapprochement with Kabul, is targeted at preparing for Hekmatyar’s political comeback. It seems unlikely, however, that this comeback would involve Hekmatyar’s physical reappearance in Kabul, but would more possibly be in the form of a group of so far exiled Hezb leaders which would officially represent him. This might be somewhat similar to his role during the mujahedin government in the 1990s when he was appointed prime minister but, in fact, never actually entered Kabul to take up the job.

Hekmatyar’s announcement to enter the political struggle without any deal and to turn away from using bullets (only) to including the ballot has generated widespread debate among Hezb activists. This is reflected on the HIG website, in a follow-up note to his April interview mentioned above, stating that thousands of Afghans in Europe (where HIG has a sizeable number of activists) had circulated the transcript and sent messages of support. At the same time, it also states that many others have expressed concern about his announcement. The website has since run two consecutive explanatory statements from Hekmatyar, both defending his stance.

Since then, Ghairat Bahir called a conference on the issue in order to consult with and unify the opinions of HIG members inside and outside Afghanistan. This was held in the Shamshatu refugee camp near Peshawar where HIG’s political office is located. A detailed report of this event, which appeared on the website, shows that most of its 250 participants were opposed to HIG’s participation in the election at this stage. It seems, however, that in the tradition of the party’s extremely hierarchical structure, Hekmatyar will go ahead with his decision. Both Helal and Bahir told AAN that Hekmatyar understands the situation better than anyone else and that since his opinion is always wiser and more correct, he therefore has the final word.(9) This indicates the enduringly strong position of the Hezb leader who, even in a situation where he is politically and militarily weakened, retains the option for a political comeback that could lead to a re-distribution of cards in the Kabul power game.

(1) First unconfirmed contacts had already been reported in November 2003 (see for example here).

(2) Bahir was detained in Islamabad by Pakistani authorities in 2002 and later handed over to the US military which held him in the Bagram airfield for most of the time until his release in Kabul in 2008. Read herehere and here.

(3) Rejecting the government’s claims about the sanctioning of the pact, Bahir has told AAN that they never agreed to the content of the pact and that Karzai’s administration fabricated lies, presenting a two-hour discussion between his delegation and Karzai’s team as a sign of agreement. He stated that the HIG delegation’s agreement to hold a discussion meeting, which concluded in the party’s opposition to the pact, was falsely announced by the government as consent to the pact’s content. Bahir said: ‘We seriously debated against the pact during that meeting which was attended from the government’s side by [NSC chairman] Rangin Dadfar Spanta [and his deputies Eng.] Ibrahim Spinzada and Shaida [Muhammad Abdali].’

(4) Hezb’s relationship with Jamiat-e Islami is particularly fraught, given that both sides fought each other frequently during the Soviet occupation and later, over control of Kabul after the Najibullah government collapsed in April 1992.

(5) Reported by Pajhwok News Agency on 10 November 2005. On the internet, this is only a stump article (here); the full version is in the AAN archive.

(6) See this 26 July 2005 Pajhwok report (stump here) about the Afghan Ministry of Justice denying the Kabul-based faction registration because it used the same name as the Hekmatyar-led faction. (Full report in the AAN archive.)

(7) In January 2012, Kabul-based daily Arman-e Melli quoted Arghandiwal (retrieved then but not accessible anymore) as saying that if Hekmatyar came to Kabul he could not be active under the party’s name and that if armed HIG members laid down their weapons and adhered to peace, they would count as ordinary members of Hezb-e Islami.

(8) There are a number of other parties in Afghanistan that go back to Hezb-e Islami. Two have re-registered after the change in the political parties law in 2010. The first, Hezb-e Islami-ye Muttahed-e Afghanistan (United Islamic Party), is led by the former head of Hezb intelligence, Wahidullah Sabawun. He split off in 1994, joined the Northern Alliance (NA) and became finance minister of the NA-led Islamic State of Afghanistan under late President Burhanuddin Rabbani during the Taleban rule. Later, he became an advisor to the Karzai government. The second is Hezb-e Edalat-e Islami (Islamic Justice Party) led by Qazi Muhammad Kabir Marzban. Two more parties were registered before 2010 but have not yet been re-registered: Hezb-e Solh wa Wahdat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (Peace and National Unity Party of Afghanistan) led by Abdul Qadir Emami Ghori, a former Hezb leader from Ghor province and former Wolesi Jirga member who also ran for the last presidential election and was a vice presidential candidate to Karzai’s Bonn rival for post-Taleban leadership, Abdul Sattar Sirat, in the 2004 election; and Hezb-e Melli Islami-ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Party of Afghanistan led by Rohullah Ludin.

Among the former Hezb leaders to continue political activity as individuals is Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad, a senior member of the High Peace Council. He left the party as early as in 1988 to head an alliance of six small mujahedin groups called Da’i-ye Ittehad-e Islami-ye Mujahedin-e Afghanistan, or ‘Missionaries of an Islamic Union of Afghanistan’s Mujahedin’. He was appointed an advisor-minister for judicial affairs during Karzai’s Afghan Transitional Authority immediately after the defeat of the Taleban regime, was a member of the Constitutional Commission in 2003, vice-presidential candidate on the ticket with Sirat and Emami Ghori and ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 2005 in his native Nangrahar.

(For more details, see: Thomas Ruttig, Islamists, Leftists – and a Void in the Center. Afghanistan’s Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006)KAS paper, 2006, pp 24-25).

(9) Helal’s words were almost a verbatim reiteration of Hekmatyar’s statements, indicating that he is still following the line of the HIG leader when it comes to a political future for Hezb. His letter published in Hekmatyar’s Shahadat daily in which he reiterated his loyalty to the amir also shows that he is trying not to be seen as a dissident.

Photo: Ghairat Bahir, son-in-law, deputy and envoy of HIG leader Hekmatyar — courtesy of Pajhwok News Agency

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape