By Kriti M Shah*
The Afghan government signed a draft peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami on May 18, its first peace agreement with an insurgent group ever since the Afghan Taliban decided to withdraw itself from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG)-led peace process. The deal, among other things, would see the safe return of Hekmatyar to Kabul after a hiatus of two decades that were ostensibly spent in exile, shunting between Pakistan and north-east Afghanistan.
In the midst of deteriorating security situation and failure of the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, the National Unity Government (NUG) will view the peace deal as a huge success. The recent killing of the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour in a drone strike, which was expected to have dealt a major blow to the Taliban leadership, already divided after Mullah Omar’s death, however is yet to be witnessed. Instead, the succession of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new leader of this insurgent movement and in a rather noise-less manner has come to indicate that despite the apprehensions, the group is still going strong. The hope was that the Afghan Taliban will abandon its violent actions, and resolve to disarm instead, but the new leader has kept the resolve to not to participate in the QCG-led peace process intact.
While the peace deal with the Hekmatyar will have little impact on the security situation in the country, the government must ensure that the constituents of the peace deal are one that set a strong precedent. The morality of negotiating with terrorists is debatable and many in Afghanistan have opposed the deal. However, the duality of battling one insurgent group and making peace with the other must be understood as a necessary step that governments must take in order to establish the futility of violence in a society governed by democratic principles.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a CIA ally against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, is accused of significant human rights violations during the civil war in Kabul, including the indiscriminate bombing of Kabul in the 1990s, killing thousands of civilians. While Hekmatyar had accepted CIA funding to fight the Soviet Union in the past, the Hezb-e-Islami military wing has repeatedly attacked US and Afghan forces in the country, most recently bombing Kabul that killed 16 people, including six American advisors in 2013. The peace deal offers amnesty to members of HEI and release of their members who are held as prisoners by Afghan authorities. It also removes the group from the UN blacklist and allows Hekmatyar and his group to function as a democratic political party, involved in political decisions, although they have not been given any official position in the current government.
The Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah- led government in Kabul is anxious to make peace. The failure of the QCG to make peace with the Afghan Taliban and rising violence in the country has forced the desperate NUG to project an image that is resolute and malleable at the same time- one that is congruent with the idea that the government is committed to peace and amnesty, but only for those who meet their demands. While peace and reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban was suspended (seemingly temporarily) after the April 19 attack in Kabul, Ghani has expressed his determination to deal with the Taliban militarily. The thinking seems to be this: if an insurgency group is unwilling to make peace, they will have war. There are no other options. This is reflected in the killing of Mansour and peace with Hekmatyar.
Many are sceptical of Hekmatyar’s intentions, and expect him to assert greater demands once in Kabul. As a result of the deal, many Afghans and human rights groups in the country have criticised the government, outraged that the notorious warlord is facing no punishment for his crimes. The argument that democratic states should not make peace with terrorist or those who disrupt the peace is a valid claim, especially when one studies the list of atrocities committed by the group. However, professing a “no negotiation stance” with any group can do more harm than good.
In the present case of Hezb-e-Islami, the group is negotiating from a position of weakness with most of its military wing scattered and weak. Hekmatyar, having been ousted from his role of Prime Minister when the Taliban came to power, went into exile to Iranbreaking up much of his already broken military group in the absence of effective leadership and grass-root support. Many former members of the HEI, who had formed a separate political wing a long ago, are now members of parliament and the cabinet and have no ties to the insurgent group. In fact, the group’s decision to negotiate a peace agreement despite the continued presence of foreign forces in the country is reflective of the fact that broken-down and significantly weak, militant groups can be coaxed into abandoning violence.
While Hezb-e-Islami is only one example, the Afghan government must remind itself of the uniqueness of various militant groups in the country and know that one-size-peace-deal does not fit all. The Afghan Taliban, which wants similar concessions (amnesty, release of prisoners, removal of name from UN blacklist) declined peace negotiations as their military campaign gathered steam and success. The close working of the Haqqani network and the Taliban and the strengthening of militant network linkages between Pakistan and Afghanistan has provided impetus to the Taliban that military victory against the Afghan government is plausible and easily achievable. Hezb-e-Islami, does not pose the same challenges.
According to Mohammad Umer Daudzai, former Afghan interior minister, “Hekmatyar has not been a major force in the war in quite a while”. The group and its leader have also accepted to work within the democratic framework of politics, abandoning violence and other groups threatened the stability of Afghanistan.
Therefore, the fact that the group is willing to lay down its arms, join in the democratic political process and allow foreign troops in the country is a strong reason why Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have pushed for peace with the group. The differences in conditions between the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami warrant the government to give the “stick” to one group and a “carrot” to the other.
The challenge is now to reintegrate former militants accused of war crimes into society in a manner that allows them to contribute effectively to democratic decision making in the country. Concerns have been raised regarding the stockpile of weapons and ammunition that that HEI owns and the importance of handing it all weapons to the government as a requirement of the deal.
The government and the High Peace Council that are negotiating the deal must therefore focus their energies on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes that support former militants in starting a new, non-violent life. It should ensure that members of the group are able to financially support themselves and their families by providing them with jobs and opportunities for employment. Failure to do so may result in militants searching for alternative means of a living and falling back into the vicious life of a militant fighter.
Hekmatyar and Hezb-e-Islami questioning the utility of violence against the government is where the Afghan government and the US want the Afghan Taliban to be. Unless the Afghan Taliban renounces violence and accepts the democratic government in Kabul, Afghanistan must ensure the military neutralisation of the insurgency group. The peace deal with Hezb-e-Islami will not directly affect the security situation or influence the Taliban to negotiate peace, but will instead set a precedent and baseline on which future negotiations will be based. The government must therefore ensure that it is successfully able to provide Hekmatyar and Hezb-e-Islami with greater incentives for peace than for war.
*Kriti M Shah is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected]