Ghani’s Deal With the Devil: Hekmatyar and Transitional Justice

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Ghani’s Deal With the Devil: Hekmatyar and Transitional Justice

A long delayed, elusive agreement between the government of Afghanistan and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has been inked.

Ghani’s Deal With the Devil: Hekmatyar and Transitional Justice
Credit: U.S. State Department

The long delayed, elusive agreement between the government of Afghanistan and notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has been signed. The signing of the accord culminates what has been a seven month effort by Ashraf Ghani’s government to reincorporate Hekmaytar’s Hezb-i-Islami (HIG) faction with the central government. Delays over the accord this summer were focused primarily on disagreements surrounding the presence of foreign fighters in the war torn country.

Late last Friday, the fugitive warlord’s son, Habibur Rehman Hekmatyar, on his official Facebook page stated that HIA and the Afghan government had agreed on all the articles of the draft peace document “and God willing, it will be announced on Saturday.”

“I congratulate the [Afghan] nation, and all Muslims as well as Hezb-i-Islami members on the peace deal. I hope it will go a long way in ending the war, bringing peace and blocking foreign interference [in Afghanistan],’’ he said.

Members of the Afghan government have also expressed their support for the historic accord. Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province, called on Afghans to support the peace agreement, “The meeting which is scheduled with Mr. [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and their [Hekmatyar party’s] readiness to endorse the accord, lay down their arms and accept the constitution of Afghanistan and work together with the government is a big achievement, therefore you should support it,” said Noor.

On Monday, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah appeared to support the draft agreement, after reports of delays on signing were attributed to the Eid holiday. Abdullah expressed during a Ministers’ Council that none of the articles were against the national interests of the council.

Some analysts believe the peace agreement between the Ghani administration and HIG will serve as a template for future Taliban negotiations; a possible carrot approach to bringing the elusive group back to the negotiating table after talks were stalled when rumors of Mullah Omar’s death surfaced late last July.

However, not all groups appear satisfied with the recent accords. Some view the terms of the agreement as amnesty for a group and a warlord that have caused considerable suffering and numerous human rights violations throughout Afghanistan’s decades long conflict.

Local residents of Kabul were dismayed by the news, stating that the government merely brought “another jihadi movement to Kabul. Anyone that has committed oppression should be prosecuted,” said Fazl Nabi, a resident of Kabul.

Aziz Rafiee, head of a civil society organization in Afghanistan, stated, “I believe that the presence of Hekmatyar will not bring any changes in terms of quantity and quality. It will provide the opportunity for a number of corrupt figures that were under Karzai’s shelter over the past 10 years and now they will seek shelter under Hekmatyar’s shadow.”

“Hezb-i-Islami will be mixed as an armed movement and will be registered as a political party. If the Hezb-i-Islami led by Hekmatyar takes any illegal act they will be followed legally,” said Abdullah’s spokesman Mujib Rahman Rahimi.

Ghani’s deal with the devil raises an interesting question regarding the fugacious effort for peace in the war torn region; that is, does amnesty toward perpetrators of grave crimes during the course of conflict lead to peace? To seek an answer to this question one must first understand the history and levels of Hekmatyar’s participation in the suffering of Afghans throughout its war periods, and analyze other case studies in which amnesty was offered as a solution to ending conflict.

Hekmatyar was a notorious warlord and famed mujahideen commander during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s. His group, Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), was a favorite of the anti-Soviet factions, and received considerable backing and financial support from the United States and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar trained guerrilla fighters in the refugee camps of Shamshatoo and Jalozai in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

As the Soviet Union began to withdraw from Afghanistan, so did its financial assistance to the Najibullah government. In 1992, Najibullah’s communist government collapsed and was replaced temporarily by Borhanuddin Rabbani. Rabbani pleaded with Hekmatyar to join his government as prime minister, but instead, Hekmatyar colluded with General Rashid Dostum, then leader of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish) and Shi’a-Hazara Wahdat forces under the command of Abdul Ali Mazari, to take Kabul by force.

Late spring of 1992 through the summer months was one of the bloodiest periods during Afghanistan’s civil war. As Afghanistan’s central government collapsed, a multitude of factions besieged Kabul, to include HIG under Hekmatyar; Junbish under Dostum; Wahdat under Mazari; Jamait under Ahmad Shah Massoud; and Sunni-Pashtun Ittihad forces under Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf.

Hekmatyar’s forces fled to the southern outskirts of the city early in the fighting; lacking an army large enough to occupy the capital, the group indiscriminately shelled the city, killing thousands. The war crimes perpetrated by Hekmatyar and his force have been detailed in a report by Human Rights Watch, titled, “Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity.”

A local journalist living in Kabul at the time of the siege witnessed the atrocities being committed by Hekmatyar’s forces:

I remember pretty terrible scenes from those days, from the hospital. I saw children, kids, women wounded. Kids with their legs blown off. I once saw some kids arriving at the hospital in a car; their legs had been blown off by a bomb and they were just lying in the boot of the car. They were shelling into the city. It was Hekmatyar’s forces.

General Mohammed Nabi Azimi recounted how Hekmatyar’s forces intentionally bombarded civilian areas:

So once again, Hekmatyar’s heavy weapons roared and rained fire on Kabul. The height of the fighting and clashes was in late July and early August 1992. As soon as it became light, Hekmatyar’s rocket launchers and artillery would come to life. Hekmatyar now controlled the Takht-e Shahi heights which command Kabul [to the south]. There, the artillery teams had wireless communication sets. Hekmatyar’s artillery teams were reinforced by trained officers… Hekmatyar could now accurately fire on military targets. But he preferred to fire on the city and defenseless civilians in order to create tension and dissatisfaction among the people against Rabbani and Massoud.

Thousands of civilians and hundreds of homes were destroyed in the attack; Hekmatyar’s forces pillaged the city and raped women during the offensive operations, as reported by Human Rights Watch.

The destruction and siege of Kabul is not a distant memory for those who lived through the ordeal. Even today much of Kabul still bears the visible scars of that deadly period.

The trauma inflicted on Kabul’s residents are still fresh in the minds of those that lived through the harrowing experience, even as Ghani’s government seeks to provide amnesty to a man who caused considerable pain and much bloodshed. To add insult to injury, the agreement seeks to give Hekmatyar an active voice and participation in the government. The return of Hekmatyar to Kabul will likely resurface physical and psychological pain to those who suffered from his war crimes.

Ghani’s gambit to reincorporate Afghanistan’s own “basket of deplorables” is not an ill-conceived notion pulled randomly at a moment of desperation. Ghani wrote the book on failed states and sees a country immersed in a history of violence and bloodshed, a history that cannot simply be washed clean through justice tribunals — even his own government includes members complicit in crimes committed throughout its civil war period. Ghani sees amnesty as an olive branch to reincorporate disenfranchised groups, a way to limit the micro zero sum game that exists in the impoverished nation.

The question Ghani must answer on his quest for peace is where Afghanistan currently falls on the spectrum in its transition and what her primary objectives are. Does Afghanistan primarily seek to further transition toward democratization, or is peace the primary objective?

Proponents of a justice based transition would argue that in order to achieve peace, governments must hold perpetrators of grave crimes accountable for their actions. A failure to do so could lead to retributive violence, and a descent back into civil war. A proponent of justice over an impunity based peace approach would further argue that as Afghanistan continues its transformation toward democratization, maintaining the main tenets of democracy and a rule of law based system would demand justice for the victims and punishment for those who have operated in an extrajudicial manner.

Much of today’s contemporary conflicts have been managed through a traditional punitive transitional justice approach, to include the tribunals established in Rwanda and Yugoslavia that were designed to punish perpetrators of war crimes. In fact, much of the international system operates on a punitive justice approach, a precedent sent by the Nuremburg trials after World War II, which tried Nazi war criminals for genocide.

Our international system is one of punitive measures that seeks to take from those that have caused an injustice; since the end of WWII, the international community has built an international criminal court in The Hague, established war crimes tribunals, and built court systems for violations of human rights to include the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, just to name a couple.

However, an interesting research article, written by Andrew G. Reiter and titled “Amnesty for Peace? Analyzing the Impact of Amnesties in Civil Wars,” argues that there is case to be made for amnesty for countries climbing out civil war.

In his analysis, Reiter organized amnesty into different groups, self-amnesty, in which the government pardons itself of crimes; backwards amnesty, in which a group or government looks back at a moment in time to pardon a group; symbolic amnesty, which is usually viewed as a last ditch effort before a government is overthrown; and amnesty in the context of peace, in which the government uses amnesty as a peace accord.

Most cases involving amnesty as a tool for conflict management has had mixed results or generally failed. Self-amnesty has had minimal success; an example would be Argentina’s Dirty War, and its success can likely be attributed to the fact that amnesty was used as a precondition to transfer power and pave the way for democracy. Bashar al-Assad’s 2000 pardoning of prisoners involved in the 1982 attack on his father is a form of backwards amnesty, and we all know where that story is currently at; Syria is currently embroiled in a deadly civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

However, during his analysis, Reiter found that when amnesty is used in the context of brokering a peace agreement, it generally succeeds. Out of 40 cases, Reiter found that in six cases, peace collapsed; in eight cases, a peace agreement or ceasefire was achieved; and in 26 cases, a general end to the conflict was achieved. Reiter cited Guatemala, El Salvador, Angola, and Mozambique as examples where conflict was successfully managed and peace was achieved.

Ghani’s olive branch to Hekmatyar not only serves as a template for a peace accord with the Taliban, but it also aims to manage a growing chorus of actors and potential spoilers that could upend any negotiations. With a toxic mix of bad actors and warlords with less than stellar records on human rights, some of whom are aligned with the government like Ghani’s Vice President Dostum; Balkh’s governor, Atta Mohammed Noor;  and Kandahar’s police chief General Raziq, an amnesty based approach lowers tensions and reduces the possibility of spoilers splitting from the government in fear of “victor’s justice.”

Reiter’s analysis on amnesty and civil war appears to be a promising test case for Afghanistan. However, it is far too soon to tell if Ghani’s gambit will pay off. Though the peace accord is historic and a good first step for the war torn region, HIG is a rather small faction and has already been marginalized within Afghan society and the government. Splinter groups from Hekmatyar’s HIG joined the Afghan government several years ago as a legal political party; whether or not the Taliban take the carrot is anyone’s guess. Furthermore, Afghanistan needs to undergo an internal debate and a reflection on its violent past, its citizens — not just key decision makers — must be included in this discussion. Whether Afghanistan takes a peace approach or justice approach should include the voices of those still marked and scared by the atrocities committed by its warlords or Afghanistan risks sinking into retributive violence.