In perhaps the first sign of real progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and insurgent groups, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—who was once a CIA-backed Mujahideen leader of the anti-Soviet resistance and now a designated “global terrorist” following his militant opposition to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan—is “nearing a comeback” through a peace deal with the National Unity Government (NUG). The tenacious Afghan insurgency now includes two separate groups of the Taliban, Islamic State affiliates, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani network. None of these groups have shown serious signs of replicating Hekmatyar’s peace overture, which puts him in the limelight.
Hekmatyar’s peace deal, however, may not be the good news Afghans are waiting for despite mounting hopes. The move largely underlines his failure to pose a militant challenge to the Afghan government and seeing futility in a continued war. His political clout, similar to his waning militancy, has suffered during his long absence from Afghanistan since 1996, including among his own followers. Hezb-e-Islami (HIG), a party he founded in the 1970s, which used to be a significant contender of power among the Mujahideen, has fragmented more than once and a major faction opposing his belligerent posturing is now based in Kabul under Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal’s leadership. Arghandiwal was a cabinet minister for many years in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration. Some members of the Kabul-based group are also involved with the NUG, including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s first deputy.
HIG was considered largely insignificant by 2013 and completely dropped off the map in the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Department of Defense threat assessment report on Afghanistan. Hekmatyar’s peace concession could be of symbolic value to help bring stability to Afghanistan, assuming it will encourage members of the Taliban, the main insurgent group, to reach the same conclusion. This seems highly unlikely, as relinquishing arms even by prominent Taliban leaders, including Abdul Salam Zayeef, a founder of the group, has had little effect to demoralize a resurgent Taliban over the past decade. Where it comes to effecting peace and bringing the Taliban leadership to the negotiation table, the “Emir” of HIG is visibly ineffectual. To the contrary, Hekmatyar has been disliked by the Taliban since the beginning—a fact he doesn’t deny himself. His alleged public endorsement of Islamic State-affiliated militants in eastern Afghanistan against the Taliban last summer aggravated the rift between him and the group beyond repair.
He was also the first to feel the heat from the Taliban’s push toward Kabul in the mid-1990s. The group swept through his outposts in the southern fringes of the capital, from where he launched blind rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks on both civilian and government targets in the city for over four years. He was contemptuously held as another corrupt leader of “Ashrar” by the group (a derogatory term meaning “nefarious,” used for Mujahideen leaders by their opponents). Views regarding him among the Taliban seem to have little changed despite his publicized unity of purpose with the group in resisting the Western-backed Afghan government. A deeper aversion, not admiration, will likely be the response among extremist members of the Taliban after he inks this peace deal with the NUG.
Should he return to Kabul, he will exert a bigger leverage in Afghan politics than he now does as a defunct insurgent leader. A draft of the peace deal brokered by the Afghan High Peace Council is making the rounds on social media by Afghan journalists, already showing that Hekmatyar may not be content with less. His demands include financing the relocation of an entourage of 20,000 families (his estimate) from a refugee camp in Pakistan to Afghanistan, lifting country-specific and international terrorist designations of him and his supporters through consultation with the UN Security Council, and assigning him a high-level advisory role to President Ashraf Ghani on political matters, among others. The peace deal will likely steer his way out of a well-deserved obscurity, the terms of which will allow HIG to take part in presidential, legislative, provincial, and district-level elections. The provisional document also insists on proportional representation of parties in the parliament rather than individuals.
Known to be divisive, Hekmatyar’s urge for power and his fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were the main reasons why he refused to work with other Western-backed Mujahideen groups following the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul in the early 1990s. A deadly civil war ensued with his rivals in power, President Burhanudin Rabbani and Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, as a result. The stage now void of these charismatic challengers, he has only to revitalize his support base to bring his ambitions for leadership closer to reality.
Among the war weary Afghan population, withdrawal from armed opposition will not remain unnoticed, even if it is by a notorious warlord like Hekmatyar. The account he will present of his persistence as a jihadist will also buy him support among the mostly conservative rural population. In this heated narrative, one could easily overlook the few thousand remaining coalition forces who will soon leave the country anyway. A gradual withdrawal of the Coalition forces, although dropped as a precondition, is emphasized in the peace deal. In ethnically charged Afghan politics, Hekmatyar’s once deadly rivals among the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks have seen respect and rose to important positions during the post-2001 administration. Sympathetic Pashtuns demand the same for him to strike a balance.
An emboldened Hekmatyar may make life difficult for former president Rabbani’s followers among the Jamiat-e-Islami Party, the country’s biggest Islamist party mainly consisting of Tajiks and Uzbeks, to which CEO Abdullah Abdullah is affiliated. Hekmatyar could depict their cooperation as servility to the U.S. invasion, a point he made only recently in an October 2015 interview. The analogy between the U.S.-led campaign and the Soviet invasion, against which they all fought, plays well into Hekmatyar’s hands. This will likely divide the country’s politics further along ethnic and party lines.
Winning from the peace deal may not be the only prospect Hekmatyar will be facing, depending on how the security dynamic in the country plays out. If the Afghan insurgency ceases and leaders of the Taliban prefer negotiation over armed struggle, Hekmatyar will lose his value as an important leader of the armed opposition to have opted for peace. He also can’t threaten to return to the opposing field, as he already often rides the waves along the Taliban and has little remaining force of his own. On the other hand, as long as the insurgency continues, or worse, further intensifies, he can always threaten to break away from the NUG. Furthermore, he may be able to demand more given the value his peace compromise will continue to have in a situation marked by increasing violence and terrorism.
At the moment, he is likely to be forgotten once he breathes his last in his hideout, already a matter of speculation given his worsening health. His return to a location which he will choose, according to his demands in the peace deal, will dramatically change his prospects, helped by a media that even now gives the often controversial leader the limelight. In an interview in 2013 with a local TV channel, Hekmatyar hailed his designation as a “terrorist” by the United States and international community. It is hard to believe he can change in a few years to become an advocate for peace. It may be a matter of time before he starts nitpicking on every occasion to weaken public support for the struggling Afghan government, depicting its partnership with the U.S. as an example of political tutelage. Hekmatyar occupying a leadership position in the government or remaining outside and issuing religious decrees to his fundamentalist followers re-invigorated by their recalcitrant leader’s return could endanger the prospects of a stable democracy in Afghanistan. Even with a modest assessment, it would do the NUG good to judge whether another strongman, on the verge of disappearing on his own, should be welcomed to forge a power center around himself—that too while boasting to have stood against the U.S. invasion and demanding unflinching reverence.
Things would be drastically different if a strong central government had brought stability and oversight to the rule of law while enhancing a vibrant civil society in the country. A still distant scenario where Hekmatyar’s political vision, with little to contribute to a new political reality run by young leaders, peaceful protesters, a free press, and social media, will be increasingly marginalized. The use of militancy or power politics by strongmen will find it difficult to retain any tactical legitimacy in this optimistic and new Afghanistan.
Will the future of Afghanistan follow this trajectory? As of now, the country’s fate hangs in the balance, depending on whether the Taliban insurgency will ever come to an end. The present peace gamble with Hekmatyar helps little to achieve the objective of reaching peace with the Taliban, with the added possibility of letting him sabotage and corrode the still fledgling Afghan state from within. He is far from achieving that at the moment, but a peace deal might embolden him.
Kambaiz Rafi is a political economy analyst and researcher. He writes on issues ranging from political economy to Human Rights, democratisation and political Islam. He has a Master of international political economy from King’s College London.