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.