The return of the “Butcher of Kabul”

 

As Hekmatyar returns to Afghan politics, what hopes are there for an improvement of the country’s political stability?

Saturday the 29th of April was a crucial day in the dynamics of Afghan politics: Hekmatyar –the controversial leader of the Pashtun group Hizb-i-Islami- returned to the Afghan scene and addressed a crowd of around 200 supporters in the eastern province of Laghman where he has maintained his traditional power-base.

During the speech he delivered, which in a way is the rehearsal of the more important speech he is supposed to deliver in Kabul in the upcoming weeks, Hekmatyar touched on delicate topics such as peace, war, national unity and expressed his commitment to the first, his condemnation of the second, and his support for the third.

Hekmatyar’s return to the country’s political theatre is the result of the peace deal which was reached last year by Hizb-i-Islami and Kabul. As of the terms of the agreement, Hekmatyar committed to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial linkage with terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration behind). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to the north-eastern warlord (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the years of the Afghan civil war), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and –the most important clause of all- to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in Afghanistan’s elections.

Many Afghans, though, are sceptical about Hekmatyar’s new discourse of peace and concerned about his return and the impact that this can have on the country’s political stability (or, rather, what remains of it). Since last autumn, when the deal was signed, the country has thus been deeply divided on whether inviting Hekmatyar to join the political process was a wise move that testifies Ghani’s political acumen or rather a hazardous gambling that proves Ghani’s political weakness- and this divergence of opinions could indeed be seen clearly on Saturday on the streets of Laghman’s major cities, where jubilant crowds of Hekmatyar’s supporters alternated with crowds of opponents tearing his posters apart.

The absence within Afghanistan of a united stance regarding Hekmatyar and, more in general, the role to be reserved to former warlords like him reveals how delicate the entire issue of political integration is and how difficult it is to assess the implications of encouraging controversial figures to take part in the country’s political process.

Obviously, if the terms of the deal were respected by both sides, then Afghanistan would have nothing but benefits to reap: a former warlord giving up his weapons for the sake of the country’s constitution; a more stable central government challenged by opponents through elections rather than through weapons; a better functioning political system made of legitimate competition, inclusiveness, and broad representation.

Yet, reality is never as easy as it is written in agreements and several problems make the road that goes from paper to reality an impervious one.

Firstly, there is the problem of implementation: no matter how brilliantly framed a deal might be, if it is not implemented it is nothing more than a precarious sandcastle. The challenge ahead for Ghani, then, is to ensure that the deal is enforced and that Hekmatyar respects his commitments and embraces the project of a modern and democratic Afghanistan. This challenge, though, is feared by many Afghans to be an extremely tough one since Hekmatyar is renowned for having betrayed all of his allies during the civil war’s years. Ensuring his unrelenting compliance will thus require to Ghani continuous checks, political firmness, and zero toleration of deviations.

Secondly, there is the already mentioned problem of divergence of opinions regarding the deal, as a considerable number of people rejects the idea of seeing the “butcher of Kabul” (as Hekmatyar is known for shelling Kabul with thousands of rockets in the early ‘90s) being granted immunity and running in electoral lists. Until the population remains divided on whether or not the reconciliation between the government and the Pashtun leader was a positive turning-point for the country’s political future, it is difficult to expect a smooth implementation of the deal. For the deal to be enforced effectively and positively, a climate of general support for it needs indeed to be created and, in order to do so, the government should promote honest and informative public debates and encourage a nationwide propaganda capable of explaining to the Afghan people the rationale that lays behind the deal and that calls for its backing.

Thirdly, the impact of the deal will largely depend on the use that Ghani and Hekmatyar will make of it. In the optimal scenario (that though is often the most utopian one) both leaders will rely on the deal’s effective implementation to cancel their previous rivalry and work towards the common objective of a more peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. In the worst scenario (that, unfortunately, is often more likely) both leaders will use the deal for their own interests. Ghani would use it to strengthen his powerbase vis-à-vis the Tajik Abdullah with whom he is forced to share powers and his other political rivals such as former President Karzai. Exploiting the support and influence that Hekmatyar enjoys within the Ghilzai Pashtuns, Ghani could easily succeed in widening his base of supporters and bringing weight in his favour – which would be especially relevant in the case in which a Loya Jirga (national assembly) on the NUG was convened. On his part, Hekmatyar would use the deal to access the political system and the channels of power in a way that his Hizb-i-Islami is no longer capable of doing by means of arms. Exploiting his entrance in the political system and his presence in the highest spheres of politics, he could pretty easily amass power and influence in his hands at the disadvantage of the central government and undermine his non-Pashtun opponents.

As Hekmatyar returns to the forefront of Afghan politics, the consequences of his return are not clear yet since much will depend on whether and how the deal will be enacted now that the “butcher of Kabul” is back.   We cannot but follow him on his upcoming trip to Kabul and see what happens next in the Ghani-Hekmatyar rapprochement’s tale.

The Afghan-led peace process: reality or illusion?

 

How to read the just reached agreement between Kabul and Hekmatyar in the framework of a broader Afghan-owned peace process

 

When looking at a map of Afghanistan, the first geographic feature that comes to one’s attention is the mountainous landscape. Especially in the North East of the country –there where the high peaks of the Hindu Kush are- the landscape is made of harsh mountain passes, hidden caves, and isolated provinces where tribal allegiances still regulate daily life and where Kabul’s arm cannot reach.

Since the civil war that tore the country apart in the ‘90s, these geographic features have rendered the north-eastern regions of Afghanistan an attractive hideout for terrorist groups and warlords seeking a secure base. After 1989, many political and military leaders who refused to recognize the government established in Kabul managed to exploit the physical isolation and the political tribalism of the country’s North East to settle there.

 

Among those warlords, a special role was played by Hekmatyar, a powerful Ghilzai Pashtun who in 1977 had founded the group Hizb-i-Islami and who was one of the most prominent and most controversial protagonists of Afghanistan’s civil war. As many other warlords, when in 1996 Kabul fell to the Taliban Hekmatyar left the capital and found a secure base for his group in the Eastern regions of Kunar, Paktia and Laghman. Since that moment on and even after the Taliban’s fall, Hizb-i-Islami became one of the many groups that, exploiting secular ethnic-tribal ties and the disaffection of the local people with a central government incapable of providing security, compete with Kabul for influence and power.

 

Yesterday, though, a turning-point was reached as Kabul and Hizb-i-Islami reached a peace deal.

According to the agreement, Hekmatyar commits to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial support to terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to Hemkatyar (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the civil war’s years), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in elections.

 

As soon as the agreement was announced, it was met with enthusiasm and optimism worldwide. Spokespersons for the EU and the US praised the agreement as a crucial step towards Afghanistan’s stability and the defeat of terrorism, and as a proof that “peace is possible” and that a “new narrative” is now being created in the country.

However, within Afghanistan, voices were less optimistic and many protesters took to the streets to denounce the agreement. Many Afghans, in fact, regard the deal as the unjustified forgiveness of one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest warlords and as the dangerous inclusion in the country’s politics of one of Afghanistan’s most controversial political figures.

 

As in most such cases, the truth lies probably in between.

Over the past few years, Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami have played a limited role in the Afghan insurgent dynamics, that were rather dominated by the Taliban’s re-emergence and by ISIS’s appearance. In this context, Hizb-i-Islami did not expand beyond its powerbase in the North East and limited itself to giving support to one warring group or the other according to the moment’s convenience. Due to this limited active role on part of Hektamyar’s group, it is difficult (and somewhat naïve) to think that yesterday’s agreement will bring Afghanistan closer to stability and peace.

Nevertheless, the agreement cannot and should not be dismissed as Ghani’s latest vain effort at peace.

Firstly, the deal is important because it was reached without any UN or international mediation and was the result of a long-waited Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peacebuilding effort.

Secondly, the agreement has a crucial symbolic value: in the eyes of the Afghan people, the deal strengthens the credibility of Ghani as security provider and his image as President capable of healing the factionalism of the Afghan politics and of pursuing inclusiveness; in the eyes of the international community, the deal reinforces the perception of Ghani as reliable partner of a peace process centred on dialogue and negotiations.

Finally, the agreement is especially commendable because granting immunity to Hekmatyar and allowing Hizb-i-Islami to participate in the political process it might encourage other insurgent groups to put down the arms and seek dialogue with Kabul.

 

For this to happen, though, a simple signature on a sheet of paper is not enough and the real challenge lying ahead for Ghani is the implementation of the deal. In order to make the rapprochement to Hizb-i-Islami acceptable to all Afghans and attractive to other insurgent groups, in fact, Ghani will have to follow a two-pronged action: on the one hand, give to Hekmatyar’s faction the promised access to the country’s political system; on the other hand, prevent the delicate -and by some contested- inclusion of Hizb-i-Islami from turning into a further cause of instability and stalemate.

 

The above challenge is a crucial one, since a failure in implementing the deal fully and smoothly will translate into a loss of credibility for Ghani and his government, and into a consequent increase of support for those insurgent groups that still reject talks with Kabul and pursue armed struggle.

Reaching the deal was thus just the first step of that Afghan-led peace process that the country desperately needs.

Two years later: Afghanistan and its National Unity Government

Assessing the security, economic and political situation of Afghanistan two years after the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah was installed in Kabul and thinking of a way out of the chaos

 

 

Two years ago -in September 2014- the months of stalemate, violence and fraud that had characterized until then the Afghan presidential electoral process were brought to an end by an agreement that established a National Unity Government (NUG). According to such agreement, the government would be led by the two frontrunner candidates: Ashraf Ghani – former Minister of Finance and exponent of the Pashtun electorate – was appointed President; Abdullah Abdullah -former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Tajik candidate- was appointed Chief Executive Officer.

When the agreement was signed, many –within Afghanistan, in the region, and in the international arena- saw the NUG as the concretization of the long-held hope that through an inclusive government politically legitimate and truly representative it would have been possible to adopt the reforms necessary to address (and eventually solve) the country’s problems.

 

Yet, two years after Ghani and Abdullah signed the agreement in Kabul, much of that optimism has now faded: most people in Afghanistan have lost any trust in the future of a country where they feel there is no life worth living, and most people abroad have retrieved the usual narrative of Afghanistan as a hopeless country defined exclusively by terrorism, death, corruption and poverty.

 

To be fair, the picture we can trace of Afghanistan on the second anniversary of its current government is not a rosy one, nor one that (for now) leaves much room to hope for upcoming and dramatic improvements.

 

On the security level, the past two years have been extremely worrying: Ghani’s attempt to cooperate with Pakistan and dialogue with the Taliban has ultimately failed, because in Pakistan too many officials still see support to the Afghan Taliban as a way to gain strategic depth and because too many Taliban have not abandoned yet the dream (or rather the utopia) of re-building a Taliban Emirate by means of war; the NATO and the US have reduced the number of forces deployed in Afghanistan without the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police being ready to take over; ISIS has managed to take control of part on Nangarhar and entered into a bloody competition with the Taliban; many Taliban fighters defected to ISIS after the rumour of Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed; the Taliban leadership passed in the hands of new leaders (Mullah Mansour before and now Hibatullah Akhundzada) who see in war and terrorism the most effective ways to retain credibility and thus preserve the group’s unity and support.

On the background of this gloomy security environment, it should thus not surprise that 2015 became the death toll reached record high levels and the Taliban achieved their maximum territorial expansion since 2001.

 

On the economic side, the situation does not look anything better: the data released by the World Bank in the Spring of 2016 report an economic growth of 0.2% only and a youth unemployment at record high levels.

The deteriorating security environment, coupled with the NUG’s failure to deliver reforms capable of developing sources of growth and fostering production, is undermining the confidence of the private sector and of foreign investors. To be sure, some economic and trade agreement has recently been signed by Afghanistan and regional neighbours – such as the agreement with India and Iran on the development of the port of Chabahar and the agreement with China for the inclusion of Afghanistan in the Chinese One Belt One Road project. However, despite these agreements entail the potential of attracting investment in Afghanistan and promoting a regional trade of which Afghanistan is part, the security threats to which the country is continuously subject constitute a major concern and a likely deterrent in the eyes of regional trade partners.

 

On the background of this scenario of rising insecurity and lack of economic opportunities, in which daily life is rendered a struggle and violence leaves no room nor time for any hope to flourish, another tragedy has worsened over the past two years – that of the Afghan refugees and internally displaced people.

According to the UN, in Spring 2016 almost 1.000 Afghans every day were forced to leave their homes and almost 180.000 Afghans applied for refugee status in Europe – a data that makes of Afghans the second biggest group of refugees in Europe.

 

All the above-presented crises, though, are the direct expression of what is perhaps Afghanistan’s biggest problem: the NUG’s weakness.

Since coming to power two years ago, the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah has failed to bring about the promised political and economic reforms and has on the contrary remained slave to the paralysis caused by the traditional factionalism of the Afghan politics. Both Ghani and Abdullah, indeed, have been constantly trying to make the interests of their respective constituencies and have proved disposed to sacrifice national good for that of their own groups.

Moreover -as if this factionalism internal to the NUG was not enough to condemn the country’s politics to stalemate- in many rural and isolated regions (especially in the country’s North) there are political and military leaders such as Dostum and Atta who exploit ties of tribal allegiances and long-established networks of local support to compete with Kabul in the exercise of power.

The NUG’s internal factionalism, the ethnic and exclusionary politics it fuels, and the existence of many powerbrokers who act outside the legitimate institutions are all elements that have inevitably reduced the government’s governing capacity and consequently undermined its credibility in the eyes of the Afghan population.

 

Unsurprisingly, the weakness to which the NUG is currently (self) condemned is the country’s most pressing challenge, from which a great deal of the other problems stems. Indeed, it obstructs security, since the people’s little faith in the central government is easily exploited by non-state groups such as the Taliban who offer effective alternative forms of shadow governance; it obstructs economic development, since it affects the capacity of implementing reforms and measures that might create jobs, encourage private entrepreneurship, foster

New hopes for Af-Pak-India?

The bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan held in occasion of the Heart of Asia Conference could be opening new room for dialogue, capable of influencing not only the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, but also those with Afghanistan in the broader regional arena

In early December, Islamabad was the venue of the Heart of Asia Conference, instituted by fourteen countries to discuss and frame common policies that could stabilize Afghanistan – the country at the heart of Asia – and thus increase security in the whole region.
On 8th December, there was the Senior Officials meeting, while on 9th the much-awaited ministerial meeting. To make the latter so important is the fact that it was turned into an opportunity of dialogue between India and Pakistan, there represented by Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz.
After the fiasco in August, when the meeting planned months before was cancelled at the very last minute due to disputes on the topics to be put in the agenda, there were few hopes that it would be possible to witness a change of direction so soon. And if it is undoubtedly premature to talk now of “turning point” in reference to the Islamabad meeting, the fact that it took place is encouraging per se. A sign that, maybe, something is moving in South Asia and the fiercest enemies of the region can respond to new chances of dialogue timidly emerging on the horizon.

So, what did create these chances of dialogue? Not a single, specific event but rather a series of events that altogether had a positive impact in recreating a minimum level of mutual opening.
Firstly, there was the meeting between Modi and Sharif at the sidelines of COP21, where it seems that new points of contact were found on the issue – for India crucial – of the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, with respect to which Sharif promised a speeding up of the investigative and punitive processes.
A week later, there was the bilateral meeting in Bangkok between the heads of the respective national security agencies, during which they talked of terrorism, border clashes, and the Kashmir issue (probably the biggest wound caused by the partition process of 1947 and still open and bleeding today). Clearly too soon to talk of significant steps forward, the meeting nevertheless ended with a joint statement in which the climate of dialogue was described as constructive and cordial (adjectives not often encountered when India and Pakistan are the subjects).

It is in this surprising climate that the third stage of this latest path of rapprochement took place: the meeting between Swaraj and Aziz.
Publicized by both sides as sign of disposal to retrieve those relations interrupted in August, the meeting marked the revival of those peace talks interrupted in 2012 and is thus a positive step for both Modi and Sharif.
On the table, the main topics were the issue of Kashmir – whose resolution is for Pakistan the key of the relations with New Delhi – and terrorism, topic of particular importance for India that has always considered itself (and not without reasons) victim of that Islamic terrorism supposedly financed by Islamabad. Complex and delicate topics that not only touch the bilateral relations India-Pakistan, but also interest (and are interested by) broader regional dynamics and other actors (namely Afghanistan and China).

In particular, it is of primarily importance the role played by Afghanistan in this new chance of distension.
Afghanistan, indeed, finds itself both upstream and downstream of the dialogue, as actor potentially capable of inducing Islamabad and New Delhi to mutual rapprochement and as actor that from the Indo-Pakistani distension as all to gain.
Regarding Afghanistan’s role in the dialogue between the two historical rivals, we should above all remember its position – at the heart of Asia. It is indeed because of it, that the afghan dynamics touch in a crucial – when not even direct – way the dynamics of the regions’ actors, thus interesting both Pakistan and India.
An Afghanistan secure and in peace, founded on political institutions fully functioning and independent from external influences, would thus be a source of stability and security for the whole of South Asia. It would imply the presence in the center of the region of a reliable partner and of an economic, commercial and energetic bridge linking South Asia and Central Asia.
Conversely, an Afghanistan unstable and unsafe as it still is today – where the control exercised by the central government doesn’t reach all provinces, where there are areas under Taliban control, where the presence of foreign troops is essential to avoid the collapse of the local security forces – makes more unsafe the whole region (as the continuous terrorist attacks prove).
India and Pakistan, then, have undoubtedly much to gain, both in terms of security and in terms of commercial and energetic prospects, from a sincere cooperation that includes among the other objectives the stabilization of the western neighbor.
From Kabul’s perspective, then, it is to be considered that what said thus far applies also in the opposite way: a distension between New Delhi and Islamabad is for Afghanistan desirable, since it would have for the country significant advantages – especially in terms of military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and in terms of investments.
Going beyond an afghan foreign policy that after embracing for years an exclusive friendship with India has diverted direction over the past twelve months and moved towards Pakistan, Ghani should invest his energies in pushing for an India-Pakistan rapprochement from which it has all to gain.

Favoring the dialogue between the two long-time rivals is thus of regional interest in order to create new and positive dynamics of cooperation, in absence of which the “Asian Century” cannot become reality.