Afghanistan shakes hands with another 'warlord'

Since 1979, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has gone from being compared to a founding father to being called a terrorist

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

As a Cold War-era jihadi leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar enjoyed widespread support from Washington to Riyadh to Islamabad.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has signed a historic peace agreement with former anti-Soviet commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Signed by representatives of both parties in Kabul on Thursday, the accord brings an end to the decades-long war waged by the armed wing of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami opposition group.

“Peace agreements in any nation are never easy,” said Hanif Atmar, President Ashraf Ghani’s chief national security advisor and a signatory to the truce. 

The agreement will be ratified once President Ghani and Hekmatyar both sign it at a later date. [AP]

Hekmatyar has gone through many remarkable transformations in the decades since he first took up arms against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

As the Cold War came to an end and anti-Soviet paranoia began to die down, so too did Western enthusiasm for Hekmatyar. He went from a darling of the Reagan and Thatcher era to being designated a global terrorist by the administration of George W Bush in 2003.

Kabul is hoping the detente will lure the Afghan Taliban, the main armed opposition movement, to lay down their arms and engage in serious negotiations with the national unity government.

Critics of the agreement say it is largely symbolic and will not actually usher in peace. Hezb-e-Islami has not claimed responsibility for a major attack in several years. Conversely, the Taliban continue to make gains on the battlefield.

Activists and rights group condemn the deal for granting amnesty to Hekmatyar. The people of Afghanistan and international organisations have accused Hekmatyar, along with other jihadi commanders, of killing thousands of people during the civil war in the 1990s.

Who is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?

Hekmatyar is a native of the northern province of Kunduz, often described as a “microcosm of the nation”. He was an engineering student at Kabul University but he never completed his studies.

Hekmatyar first gained prominence as a mujahideen commander during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which started in December 1979. He founded Hezb-e-Islami, an armed group, to rebel against the Soviets.

As a Cold War-era jihadi commander, Hekmatyar enjoyed widespread support from Washington to London to Riyadh and Islamabad.

Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was facilitating the Saudis and various western governments in providing money and arms to the mujahideen forces. The ISI saw Hekmatyar as the most capable of the anti-Soviet fighters and gave him the bulk of the assistance.

The CIA’s backing of such militias became known as one of the largest covert operations in the organisation’s history.

In 1985, Hekmatyar was among a delegation of rebel leaders who travelled to Washington to meet with then-President Ronald Reagan. However, he was the only member of the delegation who refused to see the US president.

At that meeting, Reagan referred to the assembled jihadi commanders as: “The moral equivalent of the founding fathers.” The ensuing decades would see Reagan’s statement take on an ironic new meaning.

Many of the men who travelled with Hekmatyar as part of that delegation, and who actually sat with Reagan, would go on to be accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.

When the communist government collapsed in 1992, Afghanistan faced renewed violence as Hekmatyar and other commanders began a bloody battle for control of Kabul. Commonly referred to as the civil war, that period would be remembered as one of the darkest in contemporary Afghan history. It lasted until the Taliban takeover in 1996.

Throughout the civil war, the mujahideen tried to establish a unified government. Hekmatyar twice held the post of prime minister, first from 1993 to 1994 and once again in 1996.

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Hezb-e-Islami would be split into two wings. One wing would serve as a political party.

Pakistan’s intelligence agency saw Hekmatyar as the most capable of the anti-Soviet fighters and gave him the bulk of the Western assistance [AP]

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Hezb-e-Islami would be split into two wings. One wing would serve as a political party. 

Members of the political wing have gone on to serve as ministers, governors and parliamentarians.

Hekmatyar never ended his armed resistance to the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. His group has claimed responsibility for several attacks on international forces and the Afghan government, though with decreasing frequency over the recent years.

In the decades since his rise to power, Hekmatyar has allied with everyone from the anti-Soviet mujahideen to Pakistan to Iran to al Qaeda. But his relationship with the Taliban has always been tenuous.

Last July, Hekmatyar reportedly announced his group’s support of fighters claiming allegiance to DAESH. “We support those Emirate Taliban and fighters who joined the Islamic state,” Hekmatyar said.

What’s in the agreement?
Though the deal has not been made public yet, media reports indicate it will essentially pardon Hekmatyar and his men.

It will also call for an exchange of prisoners on both sides and the removal of Hezb-e-Islami-affiliated names from a United Nations blacklist.

In exchange for laying down their arms, the Kabul government will allow Hezb-e-Islami leaders to reside within the country.

The government will reportedly provide economic support and guarantee security to the leadership.

Why peace now?

The armed wing of Hezb-e-Islami has negotiated with the Afghan government in the past, but those always fizzled out.

In March of 2016, the group once again announced their intention to hold talks with the Afghan government.

Many theories about the impetus behind Hekmatyar's willingness to embrace the government have been floated in recent months.

The most common explanation is his desire to remain part of the conversation, begetting the question: is Hekmatyar still relevant to the Afghan conflict.

Hekmatyar has allied with everyone from the anti-Soviet mujahideen to Pakistan to Iran to al Qaeda [AP]

In recent years, Hezb-e-Islami has not been mentioned in those conversations. They have continued to battle against what they see as the foreign occupation of Afghanistan in a handful of the nation’s 34 provinces, but the last major attack they claimed responsibility for came in 2014.

Most estimates put the number of active Hezb-e-Islami fighters at several hundred. The Taliban, on the other hand, are said to have thousands of fighters across the country. Factor in the increasing number of fighters claiming allegiance to DAESH, and Hezb-e-Islami seems more sidelined than ever.

“They don’t have any monopoly over violence anymore,” Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan scholar working on local governance issues, said while discussing the group’s reason for signing the agreement.

However, Hezb-e-Islami's political wing is successful. Its presence within both the national unity government and the Karzai administration made Hezb-e-Islami one of the strongest political forces in the country. Swapping diminished brute force with actual political influence would help Hekmatyar become relevant again.

Why is the peace deal controversial?

During the civil war, Kabul was apportioned by warring factions who waged cross-city battles against one another.

Hekmatyar is known as one of the most brutal of the men who would come be known as “warlords.” He is accused of directly overseeing rocket attacks on the Afghan capital, even during his tenure as prime minister.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, one barrage in August 1992 killed at least 1,000 people and left more than 8,000 others wounded.

In 2012, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was set to release a report that detailed atrocities committed by these warlords. 

The 800-page report documented 180 mass graves, killings of civilians and prisoners, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and destruction of towns and villages by former mujahideen groups.

The report remains unpublished to this day. 

To Afghans who lived through the civil war, the government’s embrace of a man who came to be known as the “butcher of Kabul” is seen as an affront to their suffering. Others, including Human Rights Watch, see the embrace of Hekmatyar as another setback for the chance of transitional justice in the nation.

The agreement, said Patricia Gossman, the Afghanistan researcher at HRW, is another example of “the government endorsing a policy of impunity …How can you build an effective judiciary if no one is held accountable for such egregious crimes?”

While the agreement was being signed in Kabul, a group of demonstrators protested against the acceptance of Hekmatyar.

"Hezb-e-Islami is against development and development of women in Afghanistan … [They have] been involved in the killing of intellectuals more so than any other oppressive group, " said Selai Ghafar, spokesperson for the party that organised Thursday’s protest. 

Others question why Hekmatyar should be made the red line when in 2007 the parliament passed an amnesty law which offered similar impunity to other warlords on all sides who took part in fighting before 2001.

That pardon was passed through with the help of several high-profile men who themselves had been accused of war crimes.

“The government and parliament are run and ruled by notorious warlords of the civil war. At this point, Gulbuddin was the only one missing,” said Wazhma Frogh, a civil society activist.

Among those accused of war crimes are Abdul Rashid Dostum, the current first vice president. In addition to taking part in the bloody battles for the control of Kabul during the civil war, Dostum is also accused of massacring hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war in 2001.

Frogh said it was naive to expect that Hekmatyar accepted a peace agreement without some sort of enticement.

“Any deal needs to have incentives for both sides to agree … If there was no amnesty, there is no way Gulbuddin would have come to the table.”

Author: Ali M Latifi
TRTWorld and agencies