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What Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Return Means for Afghanistan

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The Pulse

What Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Return Means for Afghanistan

The Hezb-i-Islami leader’s return threatens to further upset Afghanistan’s already precarious ethnic balance.

What Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Return Means for Afghanistan

Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar arrives to give a speech to supporters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan (April 30, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Parwiz

On April 28, the so-called anniversary of the mujahideen victory in Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar appeared in public for the first time in the last 20 years. The next day, he delivered his first public speech after the peace accord with the Afghan government. Hekmatyar is the leader of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), often called the second-largest insurgent group in Afghanistan. In his speech, Hekmatyar called the fight against Kabul and international forces, which his group and the Taliban have fought together for over 15 years, “illogical, in vain, and unholy.” His 48-minute speech began with an emphasis on peace, reconciliation, and an end to a “bloody war,” but then he heavily focused on core principles of jihad, a centralized system of government, and anti-media and anti-Western sentiments.

Hekmatyar’s public appearance and speech marked his comeback in Afghan politics following a political deal between the Afghan government and Hezb-i-Islami seven months ago. On September 29, 2016, the Afghan government signed a peace accord with Hezb-i-Islami, granting Hekmatyar, who was once branded as the “butcher of Kabul” and categorized as a terrorist by the United Nations, amnesty for offenses he had committed during the 1992-1996 bloody civil war. Furthermore, as part of the deal, the government promised the release of certain Hezb-i-Islami prisoners and agreed to push for the lifting of international sanctions on the group as well as removing the group from the UN list of designated terrorists.

In early February, the UN indeed removed Hekmatyar from its list of designated terrorists and lifted all sanctions against the group. One day after Hekmatyar’s public appearance, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a decree ordering the release of 55 Hezb-i-Islami prisoners, causing mixed reactions from the general public.

To Ghani, who championed negotiations as an option for peace during his election campaign, the deal with Hekmatyar and Hezb-i-Islami is a landmark victory and political gain, or so he tries to represent it. A serious question, however, remains unanswered: Does Hekmatyar’s comeback help or compromise Afghanistan’s 16-year-old costly and difficult struggle for democracy, tolerance, human rights, and fundamental freedoms? And will his comeback help Afghanistan’s political stability or trigger further division?

Listening to his speech, delivered before a big crowd of his supporters, one can logically conclude that the negative alternatives are more likely. Hekmatyar’s  take on restricting the media, his open criticism of the West, his call for the American troops to leave the country, and his zealous applause for jihad all portend that Ghani’s pro-American, pro-media government will have a difficult time putting up with him.

And that’s not all. Apart from his ideological stance, as an ethno-political figure he will upset the current configuration of Afghan politics. His comeback happens at a time of fast political division and ethnic imbalance in the political set-up. Main Tajik figures like Ahmad Zia Masoud and Ata Mohammad Noor, both representing Jamiat-e Islami, the major Tajik political party, have been marginalized. This resentment could be a triggering event for Tajiks to mobilize around an ethnic cause and prepare for a tougher fight during the 2019 presidential elections.

Meanwhile, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the charismatic Uzbek leader who was referred to as a vote-bank during Ghani’s campaign, resent the president’s tendency to ignore Dostum and his people in government appointments. Dostum threw his support behind Ghani in the 2014 elections, but has since accused Ghani several times of breaching his election-time promises. In the most recent development, as the New York Times reported, Ghani is considering removing Dostum from power by sending him into exile to Turkey after filing a legal case against him that many believe to be politically motivated.

There is also deep resentment against the government among the Hazaras, Afghanistan’s third-largest ethnic group. A prevalent feeling of being discriminated against brought large numbers of Hazaras to the streets twice during 2016, marking the largest protests in the history of Afghanistan. The second protest was targeted by a suicide bomber in an attack claimed by the Islamic State, leaving over 80 protesters dead and several hundred injured. The attack further deepened the Hazaras’ already strong resentment of the government; after his dismissal, Ahmad Zia Masoud openly said that the government had had a hand behind that attack. Hekmatyar’s comeback may further fuel this resentment since he does not seem to have retracted his hateful remarks against Hazaras in his August 2013 Eid statement, which announced that soon there will be no shelter for Hazaras in any part of the country. Ghani’s harsh stance against asylum seekers has further fueled Hazara resentment, since they constitute a large number of the refugees.

The Council for Protection and Stability in Afghanistan, a coalition of jihadi parties and figures who feel ignored by the government, is yet another group that has raised scathing criticism of the National Unity Government. The coalition, which acts as an opposition group, resents Ghani’s embrace of technocrats, which has come at the expense of jihadi figures’ presence and inclusion in the government. They recently had a gathering in the wake of Hekmatyar’s comeback where they warned the government against political imbalance and instability using the analogy of “a ship about to sink” for the NUG.

Clearly, Hekmatyar’s comeback comes at a sensitive time for the government. His political and ethnic weight, plus his shockingly divisive remarks, will further widen the ethno-political gaps among major ethnic groups. He enjoys broad public support among the Pashtuns, both as an ethnic figure and a jihadi leader, which he will presumably throw behind Ghani at least until the 2019 elections. His support of a strong central government fits with Ghani’s but will cause anger among other ethnic groups, namely Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.

Hekmatyar has also talked of reuniting with other factions of Hezb-i-Islami, namely Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), which has been with the Afghan government since 2004, to form the country’s strongest political party. A reunited Hezb-i-Islami would play a significant role in the power struggles in the 2019 elections. In that case, the Pashtuns, whose technocrats will come together around the Afghan Millat party and whose public will throw their support behind Hezb-i-Islami, will appear as a strong ethnic group facing off against other resentful ethnic groups in a bitterly polarized country. Given the experience of 2014 elections, a compromise will be difficult and will be deemed as a political mistake.

This is not a fantasy scenario, but a logical end if current trends continue. Moderation, political inclusiveness, and tolerance is the only workable prescription to avoid such a crisis.

Bismellah Alizada is a civil society and human rights activist, co-founder of the Youth Development Association, and a researcher and contributor to Global Voices.