Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, is turbulent as it prepares to welcome a ruthless, yet familiar guest: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the fugitive leader of the Hezb-e-Islami or the Islamic Party of Afghanistan. On the run between Iran, Pakistan, and across Afghanistan’s porous borders for the last 14 years, now Hekmatyar will triumphantly enter Kabul, a wounded capital that he and his lieutenants brutally shelled during the civil wars in 1992. They continued to kill thousands of people with massive physical and infrastructure damages from 2001 and until now.
Afghanistan’s National Unity Government has been engaged in a series of intense conversations with Hekmatyar’s negotiators in the last months. They finally agreed to make peace. According to the initial draft of the peace deal discussed by the Afghan government and Hezb-e- Islami, Hekmatyar will be offered a lucrative package. He and his aides will be provided protection, offices, salaries, residences, and, of course, immunity from justice. The deal also indicates that 20,000 of his followers will return from Pakistan with the government committed to provide them land and shelter. Members of Hezb-e- Islami captured on the battlefields by Afghan soldiers will be released. The government of Afghanistan will work with the UN and United States to remove his name from the relevant terror designation lists.
The exact schedule for Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul is not clear, or at least has not been announced publicly, but evidence — including the presence of his elder son in Kabul — suggests that the mysterious leader will arrive soon. The political environment in Kabul is tense and imbued with a mix of worry, hope, and frustration. While he has his fervent supporters — those who revere him as an invincible spiritual leader and the staunchest foe of foreign military presence and the so-called western democracy — the vast majority of Afghans are legitimately worried about the government’s risky enterprise with a man of bloody background and an extremely radical political agenda for the future. Three segments of Afghan society are particularly worried about Hekmatyar’s comeback.
First, Afghanistan is not an ideal place for women and their political activism, but Afghan women have earned significant representation in the government and public spheres since 2001. They are now a potent force in politics, the economy, schools, and institutes of higher educations. Once impoverished and confined to their homes, women are now on a steady march to earn a more decent and equitable place in this patriarchal society, despite the male-dominated politics.
Hekmatyar’s past and current record makes it abundantly clear that he and his party will have serious problems with women’s activities in the public sphere. Hekmatyar’s political ideology is a blend of ethnic chauvinism and religious extremism, which are fundamentally incompatible with whatever Afghanistan has achieved in the last years. Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia’s Journalism School and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars — an intensive account of the Central Intelligence Agency and Inter-Services Intelligence’s role in Afghanistan’s jihad and war against the Soviet Union in 1980s and 1990s — writes that at Kabul’s elite engineering school in 1973 and at the peak of Pan-Islamism vigor promoted by Muslim political activists, Hekmatyar was able to quickly establish himself as a “committed radical,” who would protest against everything and would resort to every instrument to consolidate and promote his opinion and agenda.
According to Coll and many other accounts, Hekmatyar would use violent means, including “spraying acid in the faces of young women who dared set foot in public without donning a veil.” He even murdered a fellow student who belonged to the Maoist faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the same year and was imprisoned by King Zahir Shah. Hekmatyar was later freed following a 1973 coup by Mohammad Daoud and fled to Pakistan, where he was recruited by the CIA and ISI to launch jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet-backed government of PDPA.
Although the government of Afghanistan and its partners, including the United States and NATO member states, have said time and again that they would not sacrifice Afghanistan’s constitutions and its post-Taliban achievements in return for peace, the presence of Hekmatyar and his 20,000 radicals in Kabul and inside the government will create a messy and chaotic situation in Kabul, with women as the primary potential victims.
Secondly, in the years since he disappeared, Hekmatyar has consistently threatened ethnic minorities with hate and violence, arguing that they were siding by his enemy, the United States and NATO, and would eventually pay the price for their anti-Islam partnership. Hekmatyar’s absence from post-Taliban politics has clearly left him aloof from the core realities and changing dynamics that define the current inter-ethnic politics and interactions. His agenda and political slogans are embroiled with the sort of bellicose and combative literature that once pushed the country to bloody civil war in the 1990s. Hekmatyar has nothing exciting to offer today’s Afghanistan and its people, as he decided not to be part of civil and democratic experiment in the last years. Therefore, the ethnic minorities are worried to face a man who unapologetically threatened them with shelling, exterminating, and displacement.
Third, perhaps more than any segment of the society, Afghanistan’s National Security Forces (ANSF) have massively suffered from the violent war that the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami have fought since 2001. According to available data, until April 2015, around 92,000 people — including ANSF, U.S. military, and Allied troops, as well as civilians — were killed in Afghanistan as a result of the war. The number will be much higher now, given the worsening security situation in 2016. Afghan and U.S. military commanders have long been complaining about the release of the Taliban prisoners, as they are returning to the battlefields with more vengeance and stubbornness. Now that the government is releasing the prisoners from Hezb-e-Islami without due judicial process, Afghan and U.S. forces should expect more casualties and prolonged war. The return of 20,000 militants loyal to Hekmatyar to Kabul will further militarize the already vulnerable capital and ignite tensions among different parties that still hold unspeakable grudges toward one another.
The return of Hekmatyar, who is still considered by the U.S. Department of State as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist because of his support for and participation in terrorist activities, reminds us about the tragic path that Afghanistan has traveled since 2001. Hekmatyar and his fellow warriors have not changed, nor have they renounced violence as an instrument of politics. What has dramatically changed, however, is Afghanistan’s situation and the political and military will of the U.S. and Afghan governments to fight and win. The war is becoming long and costly. Both governments have lost the strength to fight the insurgents, introduce political reforms, and embark on a meaningful and proactive regional and transnational campaign against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and all terrorist organizations, including Hezb-e-Islami.
Kabul may need to forget its past, including the shelling and atrocities of Hezb-e-Islami, to build a future, but it cannot afford to forget the present suffering, of which Hekmatyar and his fighters are a primary cause.
Ali Reza Sarwar is an Afghan Political Analyst based in Kabul. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and Researcher at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).