By Irfan Yar*
After spending 20 years in exile, former Prime Minister of Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, returned to Kabul earlier this month. However, the timing of his return is not so spectacular for this veteran warlord, who was forced out of the country in 1996 by the Taliban. Even now, the reins of power are in the hands of his foes — though the Taliban regime was toppled and a civilian government is in power. The purpose of his comeback appears to be bringing about peace in the war-worn country, and not to demand his ‘rightful’ place. But, will he really be able to contribute to Afghan peace? Or would he challenge the existing polity and try to change the future of Afghanistan?
Many interpret his return as a great step toward peace, while others believe the rivalry between Hekmatyar’s organization Hezb-i-Islami and Jamiat-e Islami, the oldest ‘Islamic’ party of the country, will deteriorate the current situation. The question is why would a global terrorist embrace a legal entity? A realist answer to the question appears to be “to seize more power.”
Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin and Jamiat-e Islami were the most powerful sects that together resisted Soviets rule in Afghanistan. However, after toppling the last communist regime in Afghanistan, President Najibullah in 1992, the lust for power made the two groups hostile, leading them to fight over Kabul. Consequently, the city was desolated with deaths of more than 50,000 civilians. Hekmatyar was promoted to Prime Minister of Afghanistan from 1993 to 1994 and again briefly in 1996, before the Taliban captured Kabul. Hekmatyar then fled to Iranian capital Tehran while many Hezb leaders defected to Taliban.
In the aftermath of 9/11, US entered Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul with the help of the Northern Alliance — a multi-ethnic alliance in Afghanistan who opposed Taliban. It was followed by the creation of the Hamid Karzai government, supported by the West. The members of Northern Alliance held a lion share in the newly established government. Though it also included many members of the northern alliance, Hekmatyar was shunned and declared a global terrorist, as he had close ties with al-Qaida.
After two terms by Karzai, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai assumed the office of the president in September 2014. He was a finance minister in the Karzai government. He promised to reconcile with the Taliban but peace talks with the Taliban failed after Taliban confirmed that Mullah Omar had died years ago. Hekmatyar did not hesitate to utilise the opportunity. In September 2016, President Ghani signed a peace accord with him, which stipulated that Hezb-i-Islam would accept the Afghan constitution, stop militant activities, cut off links with all terrorist organisations and lay down their arms. In exchange, the Afghan government, the agreement said, would lift international sanctions that were imposed on him and release the prisoners affiliated with Hezb.
The peace deal is said to be a success for the government. It has been welcomed by the US too, which had earlier branded him as a terrorist . The hope is that Hekmatyar could influence Taliban commanders who once operated under his banner and show the group that a peaceful solution to the conflict is possible.
Eight months after signing the peace deal with the government, Hekmatyar travelled to Kabul from Jalalabad amid tight security, guarded by an Afghan army helicopter. President Ghani himself led an event at the presidential palace to welcome his fellow Pashtun leader, Hekmatyar — once known as Rocketmyar for raining rockets on Kabul during the civil war days in the 90s. The President thanked him for “heeding the peace call.”
As expected, Hekmatyar urged the Taliban to hold peace talks. “Let’s end the war, live together as brothers and then ask foreigners to leave our country,” he said.
Also, the Afghan government is not so united and stable as it was in the period of Karzai government. There is a division in the government which was formed after the country were on the brink of civil war when both Ashraf Ghani and his presidential rival Abdullah Abdullah claimed triumph in the election. The standstill was brokered by John Kerry, former US Secretary of State, and a national unity government, based on power-sharing, was formed with Ghani becoming President and Abdullah Chief Executive.
Now, Ghani’s peace deal with Hekmatyar and his return to Kabul, after 1996, has made Abdullah’s Jamiat party, supported by Tajiks, uncomfortable and uneasy. Both Hezb-i-Islami and Jamiat-e Islami are based on ethnicity and language – the former on Pashtuns and the later on Tajiks.
While Hekmatyar’s return has strengthened President Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and his party is not so happy. He may make up with his rival Tajik leader Atta Muhammad Noor to take on their long-term common enemy, Hekmatyar. In a fractional war, Abdullah and Noor had broken up recently. Now, their reunion cannot be ruled out.
Besides the political division on ethnic lines, this may also lead to social uneasiness and instability, with further polarisation between the different ethnicities. This may even lead to tensions between Pashtuns and Tajiks. Other minorities such as Uzbeks and Hazaras may also feel vulnerable.
Abdullah is in the favour of parliamentary government in Afghanistan. He wants maximum autonomy from Kabul because the central government has always been with Pashtuns. Therefore, Tajik leaders are struggling to find an alternative to curb the concentration of power in the President. Moreover, President Ghani and other Pashtun leaders oppose parliamentary system and say that they can have serious consequences. Hekmatyar also supports a strong centralised government.
Therefore, President Ghani can pit Hekmatyar against Abdullah, to be an influential check on him. In addition, Hekmatyar could help contain the emerging power of Tajik leaders in Afghanistan and reduce further the feasibility of any non-Pashtun leader winning the next presidential election.
“I address Taliban as my brothers. There are good Taliban and bad Taliban,” said Hekmatyar, the aged Hezb leader. He appears pro-Pakistan since he had received substantial support from it and Saudi Arabia during the Soviet-Afghan war. Subsequently, he was in exile in Pakistan for quite a long time. Just like Pakistan, he also believes in “bad and good Taliban.”
If Hekmatyar somehow acquires power, his sympathy towards Pakistan can bring a paradigm shift in the Afghan foreign policy, favouring Pakistan. This can also effect Indo-Afghan relations. Moreover, as for as his xenophobic tendencies are concerned (toward the US and its allies), they will fade away once he starts receiving support from them.
Hekmatyar’s return will also question the status quo of Afghan politics since he is not happy with the existing political order in Kabul. For President Ghani and other Pashtun leaders, his return is a great step toward peace. However, others are reluctant to welcome him.
Hekmatyar’s comeback is unlikely to contribute to the Afghan stability until he works in collaboration with Jamiat and other leaders, as they did during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, to check the biggest threat of the Taliban and the ISIS in Afghanistan. The panacea of the Afghan war lies in the maxim “unity is strength.”
The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation and a Masters Student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.