Despite having much to gain from a peace agreement, Hizb-e-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar refused to sign it last week. The deal with Hekmatyar could have been a face-saver for the Ghani government. Now Kabul should rethink the deal that neither brings a reduction in violence nor delivers justice.
The Afghan government’s quest for a negotiated settlement to the ongoing conflict has suffered a setback with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar pulling out of the process. The Hizb-e-Islami chief scuttled a peace agreement last week when he raised previously dropped demands, including termination of Afghanistan’s security pact with the United States and withdrawal of foreign troops from the war-torn country.
In an article published on June 27 in the Hizb’s official newspaper, Daily Shahadat, Hekmatyar announced the end of negotiations with the Ashraf Ghani government. The peace deal is effectively “dead,” he wrote, accusing the national unity government of not having the people’s support and calling for its disbanding.
Even a few weeks ago, it did seem that Hekmatyar would sign the peace deal. His representatives had said that a draft agreement had been finalized; all it needed was Hekmatyar’s signature. Had he signed it, it would have been the first peace deal since the resurgence of the insurgency after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
However, that did not happen; Hekmatyar returned the draft agreement to the government unsigned and instead, revived his old demands, which were unacceptable to the government.
As a retired Indian intelligence official familiar with the conflict actors observed, Hekmatyar was a “brazen opportunist, who struck and scuttled dozens of deals only to further his own interests.” The Afghan government should have expected this outcome, he said, noting that of all the mujahideen leaders, Hekmatyar was “particularly notorious for his flip-flops and for not keeping his word.”
During the anti-Soviet insurgency, the Hizb was among the groups that benefited the most from American-Pakistani-Saudi largesse. That backing dried up somewhat after Hekmatyar expressed support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during his invasion of Kuwait. However, it was with the rise of the Taliban that the decline of the Hizb was rapid; it has not recovered ground since.
Hekmatyar’s relationship with the Taliban was always complicated.
After 2001, he expressed support for the Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar, and the Hizb and Taliban even coordinated their attacks on the International Security Assistance Force. But there were clashes between the two in eastern Taliban and last year, Hekmatyar called on his followers to back the Islamic State group in its clashes against the Taliban (he subsequently denied having said this).
With the Hizb’s declining importance in Afghanistan’s insurgency – its military operations have been largely in the shadow of the far more powerful Taliban and since its 2013 suicide bombing in Kabul, it has been dormant – it is widely believed that it was to make itself more relevant that Hekmatyar decided to strike a deal with the government.
Hekmatyar and the Hizb had much to gain from the deal. Under the draft agreement, the Hizb was to recognize the Afghan constitution and “permanently stop the war and violence …, become active in the country as an important political party,” and “dissolve its military structures.”
In return, the government undertook to get the UN Security Council and all states and international organizations concerned to lift all sanctions against the group, its leaders and members “in the shortest possible time.” They would get legal immunity and jailed Hizb militants would be freed. The Hizb was promised participation in “government institutions.” Among other things, the government promised to honor Hekmatyar in a special presidential decree “for his efforts for the liberation of the country.”
It is Hekmatyar and the Hizb rather than Afghanistan that had much to gain from the peace deal. Given the Hizb’s marginal role in the current battlefield, its getting on board the peace process would not have resulted in a significant reduction in violence.
It would have only provided the Ghani government something to hold up as an ‘achievement’ of its peace overtures. Hitherto, his moves in ending the conflict have seen little progress; the outreach to Pakistan failed to bear fruit while the talks with the Taliban ran aground with nothing achieved. In the circumstances, the peace deal with Hekmatyar could have been a face-saver.
Afghan officials have said that they were hoping that the peace agreement with the Hizb-e-Islami would become a template for a future deal with the Taliban.
But analysts have raised questions about this deal, drawing attention to the dangers of rewarding, honoring and politically empowering Hekmatyar and his fighters who were responsible for some of the gravest war crimes in the 1990s.
As Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert point out in an article on the Afghanistan Analysts Network website: “It is debatable whether an agreement that so explicitly seeks to give positions and privileges as part of the peace negotiations, is the way to go. Or whether it will indeed be a good blueprint for a possible future peace accord with the Taleban.”
Hekmatyar’s U-turn on the peace agreement gives the Afghan government with an opportunity to rethink the contents of the peace deal. A deal that neither brings a reduction in violence nor delivers justice cannot bring peace.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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