With the suspension of talks in Qatar and the spike in security incidents across the country, the latter part of the mooted “fight and talk” equation looks pretty lopsided this year as far as the Taleban goes. But meanwhile, dialogue between the second largest insurgent group ‘Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin’ (HIG) (1) and the Afghan government continues, after some confusion over an announced suspension of talks. Hezb has stated its readiness to talk reconciliation with its erstwhile arch-foes of the ‘Northern Alliance’. AAN analyst Gran Hewad and Thomas Ruttig take a comparative look at Hezb’s and the Taleban’s recent manoeuvres and possible trade-offs.
Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) has taken up talks with the Afghan government again. And while the Taliban, the group that dominates the insurgency, are in Qatar bargaining for their prisoners’ release from Guantanamo Bay, Hezb sent its delegation directly to the presidential palace in Kabul. On 15 April while Taleban fighters were attacking across Kabul city and other provinces, it was discussing peace with HPC leadership, although a reportedly scheduled meeting with the President himself had to be cancelled.
The confusion came when, in late March, media reported a statement of HIG’s spokesman in Europe, Qarib-ul-Rahman Sayed, quoting party leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar saying that meetings in 2010 and 2011, ‘on a request from the US’, had not reached any satisfactory conclusion ‘because both Americans and Kabul administration officials have no practical policy’ and HIA wants not [sic] to waste time listening to their inflexible conditions’. In the statement, the High Peace Council (HPC) was also criticised: ‘The council has been unable to do something good, except receiving money through its false propaganda.’ A short while later, Ghairat Bahir, head of the delegation from the same HIG wing as Sayed, rejected the reports as a misunderstanding and insisted that talks with Kabul were continuing.
It was not the first time that HIG had sent a delegation to talk to the government. In the first official public meeting of its delegation in 2010, HIG had submitted a 15-point peace plan.
This plan was discussed again this time, when a five-member delegation came to Kabul from 11 to 16 April. The team led by Bahir also included Sayed, Haji Abdul Malik, Muhammad Afsar Adel and Hassan Niaz (2) who represent the political faction of the militant wing. People closely involved told AAN that during the talks, both sides agreed that the current constitution would need to be amended to allow for an eventual political settlement between HIG and the government, although the timeline remained unspecified – i.e. whether this would have to happen during negotiations or at the end of their successful conclusion. Moreover, the source said, it was also agreed that in order to amend the constitution, some changes would need to be made to the structure of the Loya Jirga. Although either process is likely to be riddled with difficulties, the Afghan government’s agreement to any sort of constitutional amendment in theory amounts to the government giving a green light to further talks with both Hezb and the Taleban. However, this would currently be unsatisfactory to mainstream political opposition groups in Kabul who want the Taleban to recognise the existing constitution prior to talks.
A major new point was that the HIG delegation has conveyed the message that the party is ready to discuss reconciliation with their former arch-enemies of the so-called ‘Northern Alliance’(NA) (3). Hezb and the NA, led by late commander Ahmad Shah Massud, had fought each other for years both during the Soviet occupation (1979-89) and during the following civil war in the 1990s. There is a saying among commentators that when Hezb comes in through the door, Jamiat (the dominating NA party) is running away through the window. Now it looks as Hezb trying to get the NA back in the house with its reconciliation message.
A member of the HPC told AAN on condition of anonymity that the Taleban, through their own channels, have undermined Hezb’s talks with the Afghan government as ‘talks with puppets’. In response, Hezb’s delegation stated that, we are talking ‘to a government ruling our country and this is the country where we have sacrificed our blood’. Furthermore, HIG questioned the opening of the Taleban office in Qatar ‘where thousands of American troops are stationed’, in a country with a government that is ‘more of a puppet than the Afghan one’. They point out that while the Afghan President is speaking out against America in public, nothing similar has been heard from Qatar officials yet.
All in all, while the Taleban’s media-savvy military operations and the planned withdrawal of foreign troops have encouraged the Americans to meet at the negotiating table in Qatar, Hezb’s readiness to talk to Kabul directly has encouraged the Afghan government to pay more attention to them. The result of Hezb’s talks may bear more fruit if the team brokering any deal manage to convince all involved sides in Kabul politics that it will respect the political system and lay down arms.
The situation is fluid. Whenever the deadlock over the release of Taleban prisoners is broken, Hezb may lose its advantage and see the Qatar office re-capture the headlines and the attention of key decision-makers. Hezb’s chance to remain on top will rest with some Hezb-affiliated people already installed high up in the Kabul Administration who have the political capacity to reintegrate those who have so far remained outside. However the question of where to place newcomers remains a deeply complicated one.
(1) There are at least three ‘wings’ of Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan, as it calls itself officially: 1 – a registered party in Afghanistan under this very name (HIA), led now by Hadi Arghandiwal, appointed Minister of Economy in late 2009; 2 -what Western actors in Afghanistan have dubbed ‘Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), after its leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar that is an independent part of the insurgency and not part of the wider Taleban network; officially it also uses HIA as its name; 3 – a group of individuals among President Karzai’s closest advisers, in government, parliament etc who, in the past, have belonged to HIG. Many Afghans still consider themselves to be close or part of HIA/HIG, whether they actually have the party’s membership or not, which also is not known in many prominent cases. Strictly speaking, there is even a fourth Hezb-e Islami (Khales). But it is separate from HIA/HIG since the late 1970s.
(2) Ghairat Bahir a son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is currently head of the political committee of the HIG.He used to work as a Hezb point man in Australia and the EU. Qarib-ul-Rahman Sayed is Hezb the point man in Europe, head of the party cultural committee, spokesperson of the committee and a founder leader of the movement. Haji Abdul Malik is from Khost, he used to work in senior military and top intelligence positions and is now a member of the political committee. Muhammad Afsar Adel PHD is a member of the political committee and used to work as a liaison person with the Pakistan establishment. Hassan Niaz from Paktia is another member of the political committee and a popular leader of the party.
(3) Its official name is United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020