When the second largest insurgent group, Hezb-e Islami (1), suspended talks with the Afghan government, three weeks ago, it cited dissatisfaction with the signing of the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) on 1 May 2012. Kabul has now gone public, accusing Hezb-e Islami of telling it a different story immediately after the talks, which were held in mid-April. The government said that it had even briefed the visiting Hezb delegation about its negotiations with the US. AAN’s Gran Hewad reminds us that such an incoherent behaviour has been characteristic of Hezb-e Islami for decades. He looks at the wordplay surrounding the ‘arrested development’ of the talks and tries to answer the question of what this back-and-forth says about the intentions of Hezb-e Islami, the government and the political opposition.
It took the Afghan government three weeks to officially voice its ‘surprise’ that ‘Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin’ (or HIG), the second largest insurgent group in the country, had suspended peace talks as a result of the signing of the US-Afghan SPA. Hezb leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had eventually appeared in an interview with a local Afghan TV channel on 10 May (read here), well after the signing of the SPA, and said that, this step had frustrated his party’s effort to achieve peace and had undermined the national sovereignty of Afghanistan. According to the spokesman of the Afghan foreign ministry, Janan Mosazai, the HIG delegation that had visited Kabul in mid-April while negotiations on the SPA were still underway had initially welcomed the strategic cooperation with the US (read here).
A senior member of the High Peace Council told AAN that the Hezb delegation had raised concerns about the content of the SPA, in particular the possibility of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan. President Hamed Karzai told Time magazine that his administration had successfully reassured the delegation about the SPA:
‘I asked the Hezb-e Islami delegation to go and see the document and meet with the national security advisor [Rangin Dadfar Spanta and] my chief of staff [Karim Khorram] together, to explain the whole document to them. They saw it and they said “this is great.” And it was so good; they didn’t find anything for the United States in this document. So the question was ‘well, everything is here for us, what is in it for the United States?’ And I said, that is what we must do to answer and to find. Therefore I am surprised to find that they say it is not good, because the delegation, they more than liked it.’
Though more details of the meeting have not been made public, the delegation was reportedly satisfied that US permanent bases were not in the agreement. At the end of the visit, both the Afghan government and the Hezb-e Islami delegation expressed their hope that the talks process would continue (read the government’s statement).
Hekmatyar’s U-turn on talks with Kabul (more details about their development in this AAN blog) was accompanied by another surprising statement: that suicide bomb attacks are legitimate according to Shari’a law, provided they kill the enemies of Afghanistan and do not harm non-combatants. This is the first time a non-Taleban leader has officially endorsed suicide attacks as religiously legitimate. Indications of a tougher anti-American stance by HIG also came in late May from Ghairat Bahir, the leader of the delegation that visited Kabul in April. He told a conference of Islamic clerics in Peshawar that the real purpose of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was not to beat the Taliban or al-Qaeda. They were looking for a ‘golden chance’, he said, to establish their hegemony over the region, operating from Afghanistan (read here).
That tougher stance might be a signal by HIG that it will be more difficult than Kabul thinks to reconcile with them, despite the many former Hezb members in government and parliament and even if channels for talks are kept open. (A senior member of the High Peace Council told AAN on 27 May that, despite the break off of talks announced by the HIG leadership, members of the party’s previous delegation have contacted the HPC to re-start negotiations.) Wahid Mojda, an Afghan public commentator, who is in contact with the HIG leadership and is familiar with the history of HIG and the talks, told AAN that the major concern of HIG is to end the occupation, and that the party thinks the signing of the SPA will prolong the war and the occupation for twelve more years, until 2024. Meanwhile, an influential former HIG leader who used to work in Hekmatyar’s inner circle told AAN that there are signs of Pakistan’s pressure on Bahir and the HIG leadership to take a stand against the signed agreement.
Erratic behaviour and contradictory statements, including U-turns on crucial issues, are not strange for Hezb-e Islami. On the contrary, it has been a HIG characteristic for decades (although not unknown to other parties). The most well-known examples are its deep enmity with its ‘ally’, Jamiat-e Islami/Shura-ye Nazar, led by the late Ustad Rabbani and late commander Massud, during the fight against the Soviet occupants in the 1980s and early 1990s. This enmity led even to the mutual killing of commanders during the jihad and, during the civil war in Kabul, to Hezb striking an unlikely alliance in 1993 against Jamiat with General Dostum’s Jumbesh, a militia established by the Soviets and hitherto despised as ‘communist’ by all jihadi factions. (The Hezb-Jumbesh coalition, called Shura-ye Ali-ye Hamahangi, the Supreme Coordination Council, also included the tanzim of Hazrat Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, who was its nominal leader.)
The government’s talks with Hezb-e Islami have constituted a major topic in Kabul’s political debate. Some opposition parties have interpreted them as signs that the present government team is interested in staying in power after the expiry of its tenure in 2014. These concerns are aggravated by indications that even some senior Jamiat figures who are committed to the current government line-up, are keen to bring in Hekmatyar’s Hezb wing into the governing coalition. Atta Mohammad Noor, a popular Jamiat leader, stated at a gathering in late April that talks with Hekmatyar could be more successful than with the Taleban. He further added that, although Hezb’s leaders had committed several mistakes in the past, Afghans needed to create unity in their ranks to save the country from becoming a battlefield after the withdrawal of foreign soldiers in 2014 (read here). Atta’s green light for talks with Hezb-e Islami marked a huge change in the perspective of some Jamiat leaders towards their arch-enemy of almost forty years. Four days after the delegation left to Peshawar, First Vice President Qasem Fahim spoke for the first time of peace at the introductory ceremony for the new HPC chairperson, Salahuddin Rabbani, on 22 April.
Atta’s and Fahim’s statements drive a wedge deeper between them and those factions of the former Northern Alliance who are currently in opposition both to the Karzai government and to any talks with the Taleban, the National Front (NF) led by Ahmad Zia Massud, Dostum and Muhaqqiq and the National Coalition (NC) led by Dr Abdullah.(2) At the same time, these statements force the NF and the NC opposition closer together, if they are to have a real chance of challenging Karzai’s choice for a successor as president with a joint candidate (read here)(3).
Hezb-e Islami remained a strong political-military organisation (tanzim) throughout the jihad of the 1980s and civil war of the 1990s, but its current strength on the battlefield is in no way comparable to that of the Taleban. This relative weakness is a major reason why the party continues its policy of sudden turns with respect to talks. It does so to cover its comparative military shortcomings and create a demand in the Kabul administration (that needs to show some ‘reconciliation’ success) for a peace deal, in exchange for a share of institutional power. Hezb-e Islami wants to project itself both as steadfast and principled about what it sees as the US occupation and as committed to peace at the same time. Meanwhile it can be expected to bide its time until it can reach a satisfactory deal.
Amendment 7 June 2012:
And there it is already, the next U-turn. According to Pajhwok news agency, HIG’s main negotiator Ghairat Bahir has met the Un special envoy Jan Kubis in islamabad and told him that his party is still interested in a political solution but only in ‘sincere, meaningful and result-oriented’ talks. He criticised the reactions of the Kabul government and the US to his party’s proposals as ‘lukewarm’.
(1) The party’s official name is Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan. The same name, however, is used by two wings of the party: the one registered in Afghanistan and led by Minister of Economy Hadi Arghandiwal and the one that is a part of the armed insurgency independent of the Taleban and led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Western actors in Afghanistan have dubbed the latter ‘Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin’ (HIG), an acronym we use here, too, in order to distinguish it from the registered wing for which we use the acronym HIA.
(2) There are no known statements, by either the National Front or the National Coalition, about talks with Hezb, neither positively nor negatively, though.
(3) The National Front and the National Coalition still need to make up their mind about a joint candidate. Remarkably, Amrullah Saleh, the former NDS head who has sharpened his profile as an opposition politician and is considered by many Afghans as a possible candidate participated in a National Front mass meeting in Taloqan on 30 May. So far, he was considered probably closer to the National Council than to the National Front.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020