Afghan Jihad Frozen in Time?

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Afghan Jihad Frozen in Time?

A visit to Hezb-i Islami in the field

Afghan Jihad Frozen in Time?

A group of Hezb-i Islami fighters, posing with their weapons, Laché, Shigal, Kunar (March 2017)

Credit: Franz J. Marty

SHIGAL, KUNAR — The bearded men lie their AK-47 Kalashnikovs on the rugs at their feet; they had put away the heavy machine guns and RPG rocket launchers seconds before. Then they devotedly bow in the warm spring sunshine of the terrace of the unfinished, ancient-looking building, going silently through their Islamic prayers. Behind them the view stretches across a remote, narrow valley, tucked into the mountains of the eastern Afghan province of Kunar close to the Pakistani border.

Before the prayer, a local commander held a sinister speech about jihad in the form of holy armed resistance against infidel invaders, while the self-declared mujaheddin (holy warriors) sitting on the ground in front of him attentively listened with serious faces. It feels like a scene from the anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s. Or insurgents bracing themselves for the ongoing fight against the current, Western-backed Afghan government. But the men belong to a local chapter of Hezb-i Islami, an insurgent group that gained bloody notoriety during the anti-Soviet jihad and the subsequent civil war in the 1990s, but recently signed a peace accord with the Afghan government – the first and so far only peace accord with an insurgent group since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. However, the encountered situation exemplifies that signing a peace deal is more simple than implementing it.

Getting to Shigal is not easy, and not only because it is a remote place in an already remote province in an already remote country. Qari Yousuf Baghlani, the head of the central military commission of Hezb-i Islami, called it martially a “front in the mountains,” yet another reminiscence of the Afghan guerrilla war. And if Baghlani hadn’t invited me to accompany him on his visit to the “front,“ it would have probably been next to impossible to reach the upper Shigal valley. In fact, driving towards Shigal in a Toyota Hilux with a picture of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the infamous leader of Hezb-i Islami – stuck to the middle of its windshield, one of Baghlani’s bodyguards claims that the still-armed Hezb-i Islami group that virtually rules Shigal would probably kill every uninvited visitor. According to him, no army had ever set foot into the upper Shigal valley – not the Soviets, not the Taliban, not the Americans and not the current Afghan government. When they tried, all had been defeated by the Shigali fighters of Hezb-i Islami; or so he says.

Two Hezb-i Islami fighters on the look-out, Laché, Shigal, Kunar (March 2017). Photo by Franz J. Marty.

After a short ride from Asadabad, the capital of the eastern province of Kunar, the road splits and the Hilux takes the steep ascending arm, up into the Shigal valley – one of many valleys cut into the pockmarked stony slopes of the ragged mountains of the lower Hindu Kush that, now in spring, are half covered in lime green grass and shrubs. Soon afterwards, a more battered Toyota Hilux is waiting on the surprisingly still tarmaced road. The green flag of Hezb-i Islami flies over its roof. In the open back four young men in military camouflage and black ski masks, that hide their face except for their fierce dark eyes, clutch AK-47 Kalashnikovs, a PK heavy machine gun and a RPG rocket launcher. It is probably more a show of force than reality though, aimed to impress Baghlani, the important guest from Kabul.

The small convoy then continues up the valley; and it grows further. On a ridge, where the road goes through a cut in the rock, yet more Toyota Hiluxes await us. All with green flags, but this time manned by more traditional Hezb-i Islami fighters in Afghan garb – perehon, a shirt reaching to just above the knees, tunbon, loose baggy trousers, and the pakul, a round, flat, rolled-up felt hat or, alternatively, green Hezb-i Islami headbands. The AK-47s, PKs and RPGs stay the same.

The floor of the narrow valley itself is taken up by terraced fields divided by a small stream. The stone houses of the few villages are perched on the rocky slopes, probably to not waste any arable land. One house even sits like an eagle’s nest on a peaked hill top, flying yet another green flag on the roof. Along the road there are some armed men standing guard – at one point, in front of a small hut on whose wooden door frame letters, paled by wind and weather, read Hezb-i Islami in the local Pashto as well as error-riddled English. It indeed feels like the land of Hezb-i Islami.

The paved road ends and the ride gets bumpy. Once, where the cars have to ford a brook in a tight bed strewn with large and small pebbles, it even gets a little bit tricky for the Hilux. But the convoy slowly makes it through and reaches the village of Laché, the effective center of the Shigal valley. Given a clinic built in the unmistakably style of international aid, at least some foreigners must have – contrary to the bodyguard’s claim – made it up here sometime.

The party gets out of the car and ascends a very steep open stair with high steps. At the top, the way leads through a shadowy passage onto a sun-lit terrace framed on three sides by a simple colonnade with a few columns. The place only looks ancient at first sight, as the concrete and the at point protruding plastic pipes expose the building as a more recent, but seemingly halted, construction.

After everyone greeted everyone, the crowd of around 60 men, most of them older and virtually all with thick beards and a Kalashnikov or an RPG, sits on raffia mats on the ground of the terrace, while the more important figures take a seat on kats – wooden frames with ropes tied to a net in the space inbetween so that they form a sort of bench – in the shadows of the colonnade.

A local Hezb-i Islami fighter on a terrace overlooking the village of Laché and the Shigal valley with its many opium-yielding poppy fields (March 2017). Photo by Franz J. Marty.

At first, Baghlani holds a speech, underlining that their leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has recently signed a peace accord between Hezb-i Islami and the Afghan government. In essence, the peace accord that was signed on September 29, 2016 stipulates that Hezb-i Islami accepts the Afghan constitution, declares an “eternal ceasefire,” stops all military activities, “dismantles its military structures,” and cuts any ties with terrorist and other illegal armed groups. In return, the Afghan government has to take steps to lift international sanctions against Hezb-i Islami, release its imprisoned members and prepare the repatriation of refugees affiliated with the group (who are mainly located in a camp known as Shamshatu, near the Pakistani city of Peshawar) as well as include Hezb-i Islami in the current political system. (For an unofficial text of the agreement in Dari see here [PDF].)

The audience already knew about the peace deal and, accordingly, Baghlani’s speech rather sounds like an appeal and reminder to respect this newly forged agreement. All the more so as the road to the implementation of this accord has proven to be rocky. In fact, at the time of writing (13th of April 2017), except for the lifting of United Nations sanctions against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on February 3, 2017, neither party has actually fulfilled many of its obligations (yet). This does, however, not mean that the peace accord is in any immediate danger of falling apart, as both, the Afghan government as well as the Hezb-i Islami leadership, remain committed to it and several times promised that it will soon be fully implemented.

The local commander’s glorification of the Shigalis’ armed resistance against any invader that may be, appears to starkly contradict this though. However, a good part of his speech — and others like it — is devoted to indulging in memories of times that precede the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. According to Thomas Ruttig, Co-Director of the renown Afghanistan Analysts Network, since 2001 Hezbi-i Islami has only been militarily relevant in certain regions and has in the past several years been virtually absent from the Afghan battlefield. In the case of Shigal, Rohullah Anwari, an Afghan journalist covering the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan for Radio Azadi (Radio Liberty), stated that no significant fighting has taken place in this valley for at least the past 15 years. Something that the heavy traces of wear of the Shigalis’ RPGs seem to corroborate – the rocket launchers indeed appear to be more carefully tended souvenirs from long bygone days than weapons ready to fire.

In addition, virtually all Hezb-i Islami members, including the Shigalis, state their unshaken faith in their leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and that they will support any decision he shall take. This also includes the peace accord. Still, some Shigalis were apparently slightly resentful that they had not been consulted in advance, but rather were presented with a fait accompli.

However, this does not mean that there are no problems. For example, despite the broad support of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the display of Hezb-i Islami as one united party, there are several factions which have their differences (for example, a political wing of Hezb-i Islami has since 2005 officially registered and some of its members held and still hold various, also high-ranking, government positions). This said, the ageing Hekmatyar, once a posterboy for the anti-Soviet jihad, who has peculiarly signed the peace accord in an unknown location but to date remains in hiding (lately, there have been unconfirmed reports of his return), has – while certainly possible – to first prove that he can effectively unify such factions. Furthermore, as the head of a reconciled party Hekmatyar would also have to deal with harsh critics, who – contrary to Hezb-i Islami members – don’t see him as a scholarly leader who bravely fought for the independence of Afghanistan, but rather a ruthless warlord that indiscriminately let rockets rain on Kabul in the early 1990s.

Another problem seems to be that, while the jihadi speech of the local commander might not reflect the reality on the battlefield or the central Hezb-i Islami leadership’s focus on gaining power within the current political system — Baghlani explicitly stated in one of his speeches that Hezb-i Islami has made peace and will engage its opponents, be it Hindus, communists or anyone else, exclusively politically — it apparently does reflect the mindset of the average Hezb-i Islami foot soldier. The Shigali Hezb-i Islami fighters, as well as party members in the nearby province of Laghman, hardly seem to have changed belief in armed struggle to establish a, in their view, Islamic government. In fact, and despite clearly stating their opposition to the Taliban, most Hezb-i Islami foot soldiers appear to be ideologically close to the Taliban. This was maybe best shown when one of them let Taliban-songs play from a USB-Stick via the radio of one of the Hiluxes when we drove to Shigal. In this regard, Ruttig mentioned that there is indeed “a difference between the classic urban-islamist-intellectual part of Hezb-i Islami and the ‘fronts’ in rural areas,” adding that, at least historically and in eastern Afghanistan, there has sometimes been a cooperation between foot soldiers of Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban. This of course raises questions as to how well such foot soldiers can be included into a modern democratic system.

Furthermore, such a militant mindset might also be part of the reason for the uncertainty surrounding a possible disarming of still armed Hezb-i Islami groups, as such fighters would, at least at the moment, hardly ever surrender their weapons. In fact, while Baghlani stated in January that Hezb-i Islami is willing to disarm and is only waiting for the government’s corresponding plan, he promised still armed chapters in Kunar and Laghman that they only have to register their weapons, but won’t be disarmed as long as other irregular groups in the country (he explicitly mentioned alleged private militias of First-Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum and of the governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor) would not be disarmed too. Although this line of argumentation is, to some extent, comprehensible, it certainly also has the potential to whip up controversy.

In this regard, Nawab Mumand, an Afghan journalist from Kunar, mused that such promises do not necessarily mean an effective rejection of disarmament, but could rather be simply the first step of an incremental process in order to prevent the alienation of local armed chapters – i.e. to first convince them to register fighters and weapons before then gradually disarming them. This, however, seems speculative and other Hezb-i Islami commanders stated that at least in certain places with no or only a (too) small government presence, Hezb-i Islami groups should remain armed to defend such areas.

Hezb-i Islami fighter with the group’s green headband, village of Laché, Shigal, Kunar (March 2017). Photo by Franz J. Marty.

Even if the above-mentioned issues could be overcome, there would be still another problem in Shigal. Standing on the sunny terrace, looking over the valley below, one of the local fighters tells me with a grin on his face that the dull green, slightly bushy crop that is growing on the vast majority of fields in the whole valley is opium-yielding poppy. He, as well as others, later add that they are not willingly cultivating poppy and selling opium, a narcotic which also they deem bad and allegedly won’t touch themselves; they rather claim to be forced to do so as they assert that it is the only crop that brings profit. According to one Shigali, they sell one kilogram of opium for between 25,000 and 50,000 Pakistani rupees (at the time of writing approximately $240 to $480; the indication of a price in Pakistani rupees is nothing peculiar as in many parts of eastern Afghanistan Pakistani – and not Afghan – currency is the standard). This is a lot of money given that, for example, a security guard in the much more expensive and well-paying Kabul earns about $200 per month. Some Shigalis dream of growing saffron — likely having heard that it too goes for a high price — however, it is unclear to what extent they would actually switch to legal crops that simply never can yield the same profit as the illegal narcotic opium.

In the end, the truth might also be far simpler.

The Shigalis, as many other tribes from the mountains along the rugged frontier, have historically never been actually ruled by the center and are very suspicious of, if not outright hostile towards, outsiders. Even now, the officially appointed district governor for Shigal reportedly resides very close to the main Kunar valley with no actual influence in the upper Shigal valley. And the suspicion towards outsiders goes so far that the rare sight of a foreigner – me – leads one of the armed Shigali to tell me only half-jokingly that he hopes that I won’t call in a drone strike.

Taking up arms is perhaps less caused by their Islamic/Hezb-i Islami ideology or the protection of their illicit opium-based livelihood, but rather by the Shigalis’ staunch rejection of any outside interference. It could even be argued that people like the Shigalis just shoot at everyone who comes from outside their valley and tries to govern them – this does not only include the Soviets in the 1980s and the Americans after the U.S.-led intervention in 2001, but, despite their ideological closeness, the Taliban during their rule of most of Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s. Echoing this, one young Shigali with an AK-47 strapped to his back rhetorically asks me: “How would you feel, if a stranger came to your place and told you what to do?”

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. He writes on a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. He can be followed @franzjmarty on twitter.

This article has been originally published in Swedish by Blank Spot Project.