The peace deal signed today by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e Islami, and President Ashraf Ghani, has been hailed by the Afghan government as the first major peace achievement of the last fifteen years. However, expectations should be tempered. Given Hezb-e Islami’s almost total absence on the battlefield, the deal is unlikely to significantly lower the current levels of violence. It is also unlikely to inspire the Taleban to follow Hezb’s example, considering the completely different trajectories and aims of the two groups. Even so, says AAN’s Borhan Osman, Hekmatyar’s outsized ‘jihadi credentials’ could present a challenge to the legitimacy of the Taleban insurgency and his eventual return to civilian life can only be expected to leave its mark on Afghanistan’s politics.President Ashraf Ghani, flanked by senior Afghan officials and politicians, signs the peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-e-Islami party, who earlier spoke to the gathering (and signed the agreement) by video link. Photo: Tolo News
How did this peace deal come about?
The agreement is the climax of six and half years of negotiations which included dozens of meetings between the two sides. It was a turbulent process, fraught with interruptions and breakdowns only to be followed by resumptions. Contacts with US officials were initiated even earlier, in 2008. That year, the Hezb-e Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (often abbreviated as HIG: Hezb-e Islami-ye Gulbuddin) published its outline for a peace plan and two years later it handed over a 15-point plan to the government (see this AAN analysis).
Despite the long trajectory, it was not until spring of this year that a deal finally looked imminent. The negotiations that culminated in the current draft agreement started in March 2016, and in April, HIG dropped its most substantial condition for an agreement, the withdrawal of foreign troops; chief negotiator Karim Amin called the full withdrawal of foreign troops a goal, rather than a condition for an accord. In May 2016, a draft agreement between the two sides was initialled by Amin and HPC chair Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani (AAN analysis here).
In the following month, however, the fate of the agreement was thrown into uncertainty, precisely at the time that Hekmatyar was supposed to endorse it. HIG claimed the breakdown was because the government had added new demands, most importantly the explicit acceptance of the Afghan-US bilateral security agreement, which provides the legal foundation for the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan in the post-2014 period. However, according to members of the HPC and western diplomats closely following the process, it was HIG that had added new conditions to the draft. HPC deputy chairman Mawlawi Ataullah Salim told a parliamentary session in July 2016 that HIG delegates had presented these additional conditions directly to President Ghani, bypassing the HPC. These conditions included a specified timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, representation of HIG in the election commission and a share in government.
Talks resumed in August 2016 with none of the mentioned extra conditions making it into the draft agreement in the form of a commitment.
There was also a brief hitch earlier this month when HIG claimed that the deal was to be signed on 10 September but that circles around Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah were trying to sabotage it. During an Eid ceremony on 11 September, President Ghani seemed to be alluding to this when he said that the peace deal with HIG would go ahead and that “unjustified hurdles” were not acceptable, although he did not clarify who was trying to put up such hurdles. There are indications that Abdullah’s camp was indeed not happy with the text of the agreement and wanted to change it, but on 19 September Abdullah publicly backed the deal. Two days later his powerful ally Atta Muhammad Nur, the acting governor of Balkh and head of Jamiat party’s political council, followed suit. This was the first time that both partners in the National Unity Government publicly voiced a consensus about the peace deal. President Ghani and Hekmatyar had already approved the final version of the draft and the agreement was then made ready for an initial signing ceremony of the draft on 22 September 2016.
HPC chair Gailani, who was initially supposed to be the only one to sign the draft agreement, insisted that NSC chair Hanif Atmar co-signed, presumably in an attempt to raise the profile of the event and to properly showcase the achievement of the HPC, it first major one since it was created in 2010. There were two other signatures from the government side. The first was Mawlawi Salim, who had taken part in the current negotiations, since coming into the HPC as one of the six new deputies appointed in February 2016 following a re-shuffle. More importantly, he is a member of Jamiat-e Islami who had also negotiated with the Taleban on behalf of Ahmad Shah Massud’s forces in the late 1990s. Salim’s co-signing seemed aimed at illustrating the support of the Abdullah and/or Jamiat camp for the agreement (Jamiat’s rivalry with Hezb-e Islami dates back to even before the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s, although Abdullah’s choice of Hezb-e Islami stalwart, former intelligence chief Muhammad Khan, as his running mate in the 2014 elections already indicated an easing of tensions). Another HPC deputy, Habiba Sarabi, read a short joint statement after the signing, in an effort by the government to emphasize the inclusiveness of the process, at least on its side, both in terms of gender and ethnicity.
What was the signing ceremony like, did Hekmatyar attend?
The actual agreement was signed on 29 September 2016 in front of a packed audience of senior Afghans during a lengthy ceremony in the presidential palace that was broadcast live on Afghan TV. President Ghani signed in person, while Hezb party leader Hekmatyar spoke and signed in a pre-recorded video (see the video here). The other speakers were again picked to portray a broad consensus and included Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Pir Gailani and former minister and female senator Seddiqa Balkhi. The ceremony on 29 September was attended by a much larger and broader crowd than the earlier signing of the draft. Political leaders from across the spectrum as well as dozens of Hezbi-e Islami members and heavyweights participated. Among the influential figures in attendance were former president Hamid Karzai, prominent ‘jihadi’ leader Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Jamiat’s most powerful man and Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur, Hazara leader and Abdullah’s deputy Muhamad Mohaqiq and Wolesi Jirga speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi.
Hekmatyar, in his 36-minute long speech, had something to say for all the different parties in power and in conflict, with varying tones. His message was full of veiled references. He frequently touched upon those he blamed for establishing a monopoly of power with the support of foreign forces and for pushing others from power. He returned to this theme five times in his on-script speech. His message was thus less conciliatory than one would have expected at such an occasion. Calling those he chastised a small clique (tolgey in Pashto), he left little doubt as to whom he was referring to (he has used the same term in past messages, interviews and articles to refer to his longstanding political rivals Shura-e Nezar/Jamiat-e Islami). He further condemned them as having invited the foreign forces to invade Afghanistan, and then having joined them in a war against their own nation. He urged them to correct their course of action and to compensate for their mistake. He lambasts the opponents of peace as having been “bought by foreign forces” and using war as “a tool for obtaining power and resources.”
Hekmatyar further explicitly asked the Taleban to follow his example and to enter into Afghan-led talks with the government, even if as an experiment for few weeks that should be observed with a ceasefire, while asking the government to be the first to take action by releasing Taleban prisoners. Then, turning to the first person plural, he came with a suggestion that diametrically contradicted the essence and spirit of the agreement he just signed. Suggesting to the Taleban to test the workability of direct talks, he went on to say: “If [the talks] did not yield a result, then nobody can stop us from jihad and armed resistance. Whereas we need the permission and agreement of others to enter the cities, we do not need such permission and agreement to climb the mountains.” He, however, did not spare the Taleban either from his harsh language, hinting that for those who fight with foreign weapons, their decision to end a war will also be dependent on their foreign supporters. “In their fight, 999 of those who are killed are Afghans, only one is occasionally a foreigner. We tell them that such fights are not the act of the wise, nor of the faithful mujahedin.” He also blamed the Taleban for providing the US with an excuse to extend its military presence in Afghanistan by overrunning Kunduz city last year.
In his message, Hekmatyar made it clear that he would continue his struggle for the full withdrawal of foreign forces, now through political means, as the Iraqis had done through a parliamentary decision. He commended the peace agreement as a desired step towards changing the tradition of gaining power through violence and hailed the successful negotiations as an outcome of intra-Afghan talks with no external mediation.
President Ghani in his speech also called the agreement an achievement, stressing that it upheld the entire constitution, and that the negotiations had happened inside Afghanistan and had been led by Afghans. Dr Abdullah hailed the deal as historic, and emphasised, in a somewhat defensive tone, that not a single right of the people had been compromised in the agreement.
What does the agreement say?
The text of the agreement contains specific commitments for both parties, but in practice it mainly boils down to a list of what the government will give or do in return for HIG to stop its military activities and fully respect the laws of Afghanistan. The government, for example, commits to requesting the United Nations and other countries who put HIG leader, members and/or the organisation on their sanctions list, to lift these sanctions. The most controversial provision was added to the draft in the last round of negotiations after August and relates to the issue of impunity. Article nine of the agreement now says that the government “provides guarantee for the judicial immunity of the leader and members of Hezb-e Islami concerning the party’s past political and military actions.” The government also commits to recruit HIG members and commanders eligible or interested in joining the Afghan National Security Forces. It also commits to help the return of 20,000 families of refugees living in the Nusrat Mena, aka Shamshatu, camp in Pakistan, by securing international aid for the programme. Personally, for Hekmatyar, the government commits to provide financial resources and security for him to choose two or three places of residence. It also commits to grant him a honorary status through a presidential decree in appreciation of his struggle “for peace and freedom of Afghanistan.”
On the part of Hezb-e Islami, the agreement requires the group to formally declare a permanent end to war, observe the constitution, ensure a permanent ceasefire and “stop all military movements and activities and dismantle its military structures.” This is the only solid commitment HIG has made, besides that it will announce the severing of all links and stopping any kind of support to “terrorist groups and illegal armed organisations.” The two commitments are stipulated in article 18 and 19 respectively.
Hekmatyar, according to chief negotiator Amin, will not appear publicly until he has been removed from the United Nations and various governments’ sanctions lists. It is unlikely there will be major hurdles to the delisting process, given that representatives of the international community were on board during the negotiation process, and that the United States embassy in Kabul, the US forces’ commander in Afghanistan and UNAMA have all welcomed the agreement. But it will be a time-consuming process and HIG will first have to prove it has indeed ended all military activities, dismantled its military structures (the mechanism of which is to be decided by a joint HIG-government commission), and severed relations with terrorist groups and illegal armed organisations. (see also earlier AAN analysis here).
How significant has HIG been on the battlefield?
Hezb-e Islami has been a fading insurgent group in recent years. This was already apparent in autumn 2009 when this author – who was then a journalist – visited Kapisa province. A member of a HIG fighting group guided him deep into a green valley in Tagab, just northeast of Kabul, to meet his comrades. “Hezb-e Islami runs 80 per cent of the current jihad against the occupation forces,” he claimed while on the way to the valley. “But the media and foreigners talk only about the Taleban as the prime enemy. They know that Hezb-e Islami is so popular that if they talk about it every day, the whole nation will rally around Hezb.” In a village dotted by fields separated by mud walls and orchards of pomegranate trees, two men wearing their Kalashnikovs over green camouflage jackets emerged from a walled field on a motorbike to guide us to the location of our meeting. One of them was Fazl Hadi, the local commander, who was still only in his late 20s. He had recently taken command after his father had been killed fighting French troops deployed to Tagab district.
At the site of the meeting a crowd of villagers gathered. Among them were about ten people who said they were armed and actively taking part in the fighting, but everyone in the crowd identified themselves as Hezb-e Islami mujahedin. They were from three generations, men over 40 who had fought the Soviets, their children who were contributing to insurgency operations against French and Afghan government troops, and a third generation of smaller children. The older men brought out Hezb banners, flags and pictures of Hekmatyar from the 1980s and 1990s, and even weapons from that era. Putting them on show on the ground of an old fort, the crowd shouted, “Long live Hekmatyar!” and “Long live jihad!”
It may have seemed like a convincing show of strength, but speaking to Fazl Hadi, it became clear that, rhetoric aside, this was a weak faction getting weaker. He complained about the shortage of resources and a near-absence of central command which could supply his fighters and provide reinforcements. He lamented that unfriendly Taleban increasingly encircled them. Two years later, he had moved permanently to Peshawar and his group had ceased to exist. By that time, in late 2011, Kapisa, which used to be a Hezbi stronghold, had slid towards Taleban control and gradually, in the years that followed, so did the other HIG redoubts, such as Kunar, Baghlan and Wardak.
Most of the HIG ‘fronts’ have since evaporated in a process of continued attrition, mainly due to the absence of an efficient organisation and lack of resources. Individual Hezbi fighters joined all parties of the conflict across the spectrum: community-level, anti-Taleban militias such as the Afghan Local Police or other iterations of government-linked militias such as, the US and German-sponsored Critical Infrastructure Protection Programme (CIPP) in Baghlan in 2010 (see AAN reporting here); the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); the Taleban; and even the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP). Many other fighters just returned to normal life. As a result, there are currently hardly any active armed groups of Hezb-e Islami left on the battlefield which are dependent on and loyal to Hekmatyar.
HIG did, however, continue to claim attacks. The last confirmed HIG attack that made it into the news was a suicide attack which killed two civilian contractors with the International Security Assistance Force in February 2014 in Kabul. Since then, there have been somewhat random claims published on the HIG website of small-scale attacks on ANSF targets in a few provinces. These claims, however, have not been confirmed by independent sources.
What impact will the peace deal have on the insurgency?
Given Hezb-e Islami’s almost total absence on the battlefield, expectations that the peace agreement with Hekmatyar will result in an immediate noticeable drop in the current level of violence are misguided. The HIG leader will not bring many fighters and will probably not be able to convince those who have continued their armed struggle against the state under other flags to lay down their arms. Even in Hezb’s prime stronghold, the Shamshatu refugee camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, that has been managed by Hezb since the 1980s with the Pakistani government’s consent, Hekmatyar has increasingly struggled to keep it free from the influence of other militant groups and prevent young men defecting to them. His men have particularly had trouble stopping young militants enlisting with the Taleban. In some cases, such youths and their families have been punished and banished from the camp.
Despite the scarcity of Hezb-e Islami fighting forces on the battlefield, the agreement signed in Kabul on 29 September 2016 may still have some practical importance for peace. While the agreement will likely fail to change the minds of broad sections of the Taleban movement, it might influence some in their ranks, as well as supporters among ordinary people, who have kept their respect for Hekmatyar because of his ‘jihadi’ credentials – provided he will be able to defend joining the government without it being seen as a sell-out of his ‘jihadi’ past.
Hekmatyar’s decision to ‘come in from the cold’ might feed a discussion among the Taleban about stopping the fight against the government altogether, a discussion that very few from the pro-state, Islamist spectrum have engaged in (the one major exception has been MP and mujahedin factional leader, Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf, who has several times challenged the Taleban in strong words to prove that their fight against the government is Islamic (see an analysis here).
Hekmatyar’s potential to sway minds among insurgents and their supporters, if he chooses to, stems from his outsized role in promoting the narrative of jihad for over 40 years. From exile, he fed the minds of probably thousands of followers (not all necessarily Hezbis) through his prolific writing and media interviews. He has authored more than 70 books on religion, politics and jihad. His anti-‘occupation’ position and his tirades against the government over the past 15 years have granted him a distinct constituency in Afghanistan and admirers from across the jihadist spectrum throughout the region. During the current insurgency, he (and HIG as a whole) was undoubtedly the second key contributor, after the Taleban, to crafting a very vocal, anti-state narrative. Hekmatyar’s rhetorical war was always much louder than Hezb’s actual presence on the battlefield. As long as he managed to feed that unabated, anti-state narrative, he continued to play a role, even if he did not have many fighters on the ground.
Hekmatyar’s turnabout seems to have indeed hit a nerve with some in the Taleban movement. Activists and mid-level cadres have scathingly condemned the deal and Hekmatyar personally. They have criticised him for “underselling” his jihad at a particularly bad time, as the national unity government, in their eyes, struggles for survival. However, his ‘jihadi credentials’ and continuing appeal to some in the movement have perhaps contributed to the Taleban’s official silence on the matter and lack of an outright condemnation. (1)
Among the political (non-fighting) Islamists inside the country, Jamiat-e Eslah, for example, commended the deal and welcomed the return of Hekmatyar. (For a profile of Jamiat-e Eslah, read this AAN paper). Eslah, which describes itself as a social movement rather than a political one and has a strong following among young people and includes former Hezbis as senior members, would obviously support any development that brings in more Islamist forces and may make the government more Islamic.
What might be the effect of a possible large-scale return of refugees from HIG-controlled camps?
One of the provisions in the deal is a government promise to mobilise international support for the voluntary return of 20,000 families from the HIG-controlled refugee camps in Pakistan. Families in the Shamshatu Camp, which hosts, according to the UNHCR, some 38,000 inhabitants, are likely to benefit most from this program – if it is indeed implemented. The camp is predominantly inhabited by Hekmatyar loyalists, and was the main hub of HIG recruitment during the current period of insurgency.
However, there are Hezb supporters in other camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, too. Hekmatyar’s son Habib ul-Rahman has visited several of these camps in recent months and held gatherings which called for assistance from the Afghan government and the UN to facilitate their repatriation to Afghanistan and/or stop Pakistan’s crackdown against them. A HIG-linked assisted repatriation programme will obviously be a valuable asset for Hekmatyar to earn the support of potential returnees who are not already linked to the movement and this could broaden his support base after his return to the country and, possibly, the political field. This is particularly the case as life in Pakistan for Afghan refugees has become extremely difficult in recent years and is still getting tougher (AAN has a forthcoming dispatch on this subject).
The envisaged return of families will include thousands of HIG-affiliated (as well as non-HIG) youth, who have been vulnerable to, or already caught up in, a process of radicalisation in the camps’ environment. In Shahmshatu particularly, and in other refugee camps to a lesser extent, the youth have been brought up in a political, cultural and educational environment conducive to militant ideas where the armed struggle against the Afghan state was often presented as a legitimate jihad. Schools in Shamshatu, all of which are run by HIG, as well as madrasas, mosques and cultural gatherings have been replete with militant sermons and sloganeering. Witnesses from Shahmshatu have related to this author how, during the last few years, many young people from the camp were joining Taleban ranks, after HIG had effectively ceased to run an organised front in the insurgency.
The careful reintegration of these parts of the HIG grassroots into Afghan society, if they do indeed return, is perhaps no less important than the integration of HIG’s remaining fighters. It is to be hoped that those who have been influenced by radical ideas based on disinformation, will change when they see the reality in their country.
Even those who do not return under the repatriation programme, including the supporters and sons of senior Hezbis, may see the Afghan state in a more positive light once Hekmatyar declares his support and possibly takes part in it. The remaining refugees may also be able to breathe more freely, assuming that, by the departure of Hezbi leaders from the camp, HIG will lose much of its tight control over life in Shamshatu. The agreement envisages the provision of land (in townships) for the returnees to settle on, but even if they are settled in specific townships, they will ultimately have more freedom of movement than they had in the Pakistani refugee setting. Returning to Afghanistan and living within Afghan society could reduce their chances of adopting extremist ideas or being recruited for insurgency by other groups, but it could also go the other way. The return of radicalised youth and the possible inclusion in the government of militant leaders, who have not clearly distanced themselves from their previous rhetoric, could further radicalise the discourse and limit Afghanistan’s space for debate.
Could the HIG deal inspire a similar deal with Taleban?
One common theme in the speeches during the ceremony on 29 September 2016 was the repeated call on the Taleban to follow the example of the peace deal with Hezb-e Islami, which everyone praised as a success of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owed process. But, could the HIG deal really inspire such a deal? To answer the question it is useful to look at why the two groups opted for violent opposition against the Afghan government and its foreign backers in the first place. The fundamental grievance that drove both Hezb and the Taleban to oppose the post-9/11 political order in Afghanistan was the same: both were excluded from the Bonn Conference that laid out the roadmap for the current political system. (2) Jamiat-e Islami, a staunch rival of both the Taleban and HIG, came to dominate the post-2001 Afghans state. However, the new administration and its American military backers treated the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami differently.
Taleban leaders – including those who had withdrawn from the fighting – were detained, tortured and killed by US-led coalition forces and their local militia partners. Taleban commanders, who were leading peaceful lives in their communities, as well as assumed or real sympathisers of the movement, were taken from their homes and sent to Bagram or Guantanamo prisons. Tribal elders were also targeted as part of a crackdown that particularly focused on the Taleban southern heartland. Only a handful of Taleban managed to get security agreements with figures in the new administration to enable them to live peacefully in Afghanistan after 2001.
Hezb-e Islami also saw many of its people detained, although again there were many who had only fought or had family members who had fought against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s (when incidentally, the US favoured the faction for weaponry and funding). However, senior members of Hezb-e Islami largely escaped detention. A notable exception was Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, Ghairat Bahir. US agents and Pakistani security forces detained him in Islamabad in 2002, along with his driver, Gul Rahman, and he was secretly rendered to Afghanistan and tortured by the CIA in the ‘Salt Pit’, north of Kabul. Bahir was finally released from Bagram in May 2008. His driver, Gul Rahman, did not survive CIA custody; he froze to death in the Salt Pit. No one was prosecuted for his killing. (More details here)
Hekmatyar did condemn the US ‘invasion’ in January 2002 and call for armed struggle against it. At the same time, however, there were attempts by Hezb-e Islami, from the very beginning, to become part of the new political settlement in Kabul. This included an open meeting of more than a hundred senior Hezbis in Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul to try to launch a political movement in April 2004. The Jamiat-controlled NDS arrested dozens of those at the meeting, including former intelligence chief Wahidullah Sabawun (a future presidential advisor on tribal affairs and leader of the later legal, registered Hezb-e Islami party) and three men who would go on to become provincial governors, Juma Khan Hamdard, Delbar Jan Arman and the late Bashir Baghlani. They were, however, soon released. It was not till 2005, after the international powers had gradually dropped their initial reservations that Hezb-e Islami was allowed to formally register as a political party, but Hezb has seen many of its cadres absorbed into the state. They have served at every level of government: governors, ministers and now one of the deputies to the chief executive.
Hekmatyar is the only HIG leader who was listed by the UN sanctions committee (although a few Hezb commanders have been listed by the US), but his listing in 2003 was made on the basis of his association “with Al-Qaida, Usama bin Laden or the Taliban,” rather than for his role in HIG militant activities. In contrast, the Taleban had most of its senior members listed, starting from 1999.
All of this had a clear effect on the trajectories of the two groups. The Taleban, more firmly and violently excluded from the new polity, regrouped cohesively to mobilise for an armed struggle and gradually became the most effective insurgent organisation, while Hezb played both sides of the conflict line. As time passed, the differences in the paths taken by the two organisations only became starker. The Taleban grew more confident that they could win militarily and therefore readied themselves to fight a longer war. Hezb, on other hand, opted for the political option and over the years dispatched more and more of its members to Kabul, while keeping up some military pressure.
The two groups also had different, distinct goals. HIG pinned its hopes on gaining power by joining the existing political system, with no demands to change or revamp it. At one point, during the 2014 presidential elections, Hekmatyar endorsed the candidacy of HIG’s head of the political committee, Qutbuddin Helal (see also this AAN analysis). In contrast, the Taleban have consistently prioritised their military struggle and made the cessation of their fight conditional on the full withdrawal of foreign troops and a reset of the post-Bonn setup. Meaningful negotiations for an end to the war have never materialised, initially because of the US’s veto and later because the Taleban were never presented with a serious reconciliation offer in their (always officially denied) contacts with the government and themselves came up with no workable proposals either. The military campaign has thus remained the Taleban’s choice by default and desire. With their continued military build-up coupled with occasional successes, the movement (especially its fighters) currently seems to have an appetite for nothing short of a military victory. Overly high hopes that the Taleban might follow HIG’s example ignore the diverging trajectories that have long set the two organisations apart.
What impact may the deal have on politics in Afghanistan?
Hezb-e Islami is a curious organisation in that, for more than a decade, it has simultaneously maintained both a fighting wing and a legal, political wing. Senior Hezbi leaders have been able to find their way into government, as governors and ministers. Engineer Muhammad Khan, one of Dr Abdullah’s deputies, currently holds a post that is the fifth most powerful in the national unity government’s hierarchy (after the president, his two vice-presidents and the chief executive). The Kabul-based Hezbis have long legitimised the same state that Hekmatyar has kept condemning as a puppet of the Americans and that he has declared jihad against.
This means that, in terms of political weight, Hekmatyar will bring very few new or influential politicians. He does not come as the representative of a political force that has been excluded, which means that his return does not make the current political setup significantly more inclusive. Even the small minority of prominent Hezbis that were left with Hekmatyar have not been living tucked away in the mountains or isolated from Kabul politics. Apart from Hekmatyar himself, all the seniors from his close circle have, for years, been meeting with Afghan politicians, government officials and western diplomats and were always available on request.
Rather than leading a force that was hitherto absent from the political landscape, Hekmatyar comes alone. He could, however, unify the disparate Hezbi factions and personalities currently scattered among various power camps. Moreover, his return to the fold of the state will certainly strengthen the role of jihadi forces in it. This may, on one hand, make the state more legitimate in the eyes of Islamists and jihadists – a consequence the government and its international backers are probably hoping for. But in the eyes of those who have long felt despair and ager at the presence of warlords accused of gross abuses in the higher echelons of the state, this peace deal just gives yet another alleged war criminal impunity for his crimes (the legal instrument is the Amnesty Law of 2010). It may, therefore, have the opposite impact on the legitimacy of the government.
All in all, it is a strange peace deal. The most significant part of it is, of course, himself. He has no army to bring home from the trenches, but has, in the past, proved able to rally huge political support around himself. Hekmatyar has been one of the most charismatic leaders – for good or ill – in Afghanistan since the late 1970s, with an intensely loyal following. His Hezb-e Islami has been, and still remains, one of the most cohesive movements in Afghanistan. As he returns to a widely changed political environment, the question will be, after twenty years in the wilderness, what clout does Hekmatyar still have?
Edited by Thomas Ruttig, Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert.
ANNEX. Who is Hekmatyar?
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was born in the late 1940s in Emam Saheb district of Kunduz province, where his parents had moved from Ghazni and where he also attended school. He is a Kharoti, from the Ghilzai confederacy of Pashtun tribes. In 1970, he started studying at Kabul University’s Engineering Faculty, but never graduated as he fled to Pakistan in 1972 after violent clashes between Islamist students (organised in the Jawanan-e Musalman (Young Muslims) movement, the predecessor of both Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami) and leftist students of Kabul University, and a crackdown on the Islamist activists by the king’s government. Hekmatyar had been a co-founder of the movement that came into being to stand against the vocal leftists on the campus. In 1975, he was part of an unsuccessful Islamist uprising planned in several provinces against the now Republican regime of President Muhammad Daud in coalition with the Parcham faction of the leftist Hezb-e Dimukratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (PDPA).
Hekmatyar’s activism during these years was formative for his future role as one of the leaders of the anti-Soviet mujahedin in the 1980s. He founded Hezb-e Islami, splitting off from the united Islamist movement, in the second half of the 1970s, with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Jamaat-e Islami as his inspirational sources.
During the struggle against the Soviets, starting in 1979, Hezb received the lion’s share of funding handed out to the mujahedin by western and Arab governments through Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI. After Kabul fell to the mujahedin in 1992, Hekmatyar was selected as Prime Minister of the post-PDPA unity mujahedin government that quickly broke apart. Hekmatyar became a key player in the brutal power struggle among mujahedin factions and former PDPA militias that continued until the Taleban ousted them in 1996. During this period, his forces regularly rocketed Kabul, in an indiscriminate use of force that killed many civilians. The Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP) in its report documented specific cases of abuses and killing of civilians by Hekmatyar’s forces. The AJP report noted that, “while Hezb-e Islami is frequently named as foremost among the factions responsible for the deaths and destruction in the bombardment of Kabul, it was not the only perpetrator of these violations.” Even so, the report notes:
[T]he sheer magnitude of civilian casualties and wanton destruction resulting from bombardment during 1992-95, provides strong grounds for asserting there was excessive force. The continuity in the pattern of casualties throughout the campaign, with no evidence of any serious Hizb-i Islami attempt to alter its tactics to focus more effectively on military targets, indicates that Hizb-i Islami failed to take adequate measures to avoid civilian damage. Some of the episodes of bombardment occurred without any accompanying land offensive, or obvious urgency in possible military targets. This applies most particularly to the massive August 1992 bombardment, during which front lines remained static and it seemed that the bombardment was merely a reassertion of opposition. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, one to two thousand people were killed by rockets in three weeks in August, and eight to nine thousand wounded. During that period, Hikmatyar’s forces fired most of the rockets that struck civilian areas of Kabul. Inflicting severe damage on civilian areas, as happened in August 1992 and in the absence of immediate military objectives, is the clearest case of indiscriminate use of heavy weapons.
Hekmatyar ceased shelling Kabul only after concluding a power-sharing deal with his main foes in 1996, head of state and Jamiat-e Islami leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and his defence minister Ahmad Shah Massud, whose forces then ruled most of the capital. Hekmatyar was re-appointed as prime minister under President Rabbani, but a few months later, the Taleban ousted both of them from Kabul.
While the Taleban ruled, Hezb-e Islami was largely in a state of military dormancy with Hekmatyar living in exile in Iran in relative obscurity. Most of the other mujahedin factions, which had been fighting each other in the bitter 1992-96 civil war, re-grouped as allies forming the anti-Taleban United Front (aka Northern Alliance). Hekmatyar’s commanders largely reintegrated into normal life and a minority were absorbed into Taleban ranks.
After the intervention of the US-led coalition forces in late 2001, Hekmatyar, having been excluded from the political process laid out in Bonn, declared jihad against the coalition forces and the government they supported. This opposition to the post-2001 political order earned him the title “amir of two jihads” among his supporters who considered this the country’s second jihad. His party’s role in the armed struggle, however, was increasingly eclipsed by the Taleban, who made up the bulk of the insurgency, pushing Hezb into a distant second. Some Hezb leaders returned to Kabul during this period and registered Hezb-e Islami as a legal political party in 2005, after distancing themselves from the party’s insurgent wing. This political faction gained significant representation in government and parliament and became one of the entry points for the later negotiations between Hekmatyar and the Afghan government.
(1) While the Taleban officially kept silent on the matter, one article did appear on its website which criticised Hekmatyar’s deal as a crime. The article was written by a young ideologue, who usually publishes on pro-Taleban websites rather than the official website of the movement. He is not a member of an entity within the Taleban structures and is considered more of an independent ideologue sympathetic of the Taleban. His ideas are not necessarily endorsed by the movement. The article titled “The Concept of Peace in Islam” makes no explicit mention of Hekmatyar and cannot really be taken as the Taleban’s official position, even though it was published on their website. Generally, not everything that is published on alemara, the Taleban website, reflects their policy or official line of thinking. The movement’s media operations have the flexibility to accommodate ideas of its supporters and sympathisers that may diverge from or contradict official positions.
(2) Although Hekmatyar’s son-in-law Humayun Jarir took part in the Bonn conference, he came as a member of the independent political group that called itself the Cyprus Group. The two other representatives of the group were Jalil Shams, who later served as the minister of economy under Karzai (2006- 2010) and Azizullah Ludin, who later headed the Independent Election Commission and the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption in the Karzai government. The three representatives came from different political backgrounds. Jarir was not invited to the conference as a representative of Hezb and he did not speak for the party at the conference. In 2010, he organised an event in the Maldives (funded by Afghan businessmen, according to Jarir) bringing together former Taleban, Hezb-e Islami members and Afghan government officials as well as members of parliament. The initiative appeared to be his own idea, rather than something related to Hezb. There are reports that Jarir is close to circles in the Iranian government and that the Maldives event, and that even his participation in Bonn, was facilitated with Iran’s support
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020