Originally published in The New Arab
With the return of one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the war-torn nation has taken a cautious, but concrete step towards national reconciliation between Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (HIG) party and other formerly warring political movements – a major achievement for Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government.
For those living in Afghanistan, and for the millions of Afghans who have been displaced around the globe over the past 40 years of violence, reconciliation with Hekmatyar comes at a heavy cost : the choice of peace over justice.
However, with a resurgent Taliban, a weak and wildly corrupt central government, and foreign powers vying for influence , achieving peace in Afghanistan may not be that simple.
The past is the present (is the future?)
By the time Gulbuddin Hekmatyar enrolled in Kabul University, he was already a hardened political entity.
“If you didn’t know him, you definitely heard about him – he was the talk of the town,” Haji Aman Khan told me, reflecting on his time at KU alongside Hekmatyar. “He was quite a serious guy. Always stirring people up.”
Entering university, Hekmatyar found himself in a hotbed of political activity; the theories of Mao, Lenin and Marx were commonplace, as were the ideas coming from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamist scholar Sayyid Qutb.
The first translations of Qutb’s seminal book, Milestones, into Dari were made by Burhaddin Rabbani, a young ustad (professor) at KU, who had just returned from Egypt after completing his doctoral studies at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University.
Although most people involved in political activity at KU dispute that any foreign power or organisation had much influence over Afghanistan’s Islamists in the 1970s, Rabbani is said to have developed a close relationship with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood during his time there.
At KU, Hekmatyar met Rabbani – who had been working closely with Mawlavi Habibur Rahman, Saifuddin Nasratyar, and other well-known activists and scholars. But even before Hekmatyar’s arrival at KU, a new Islamist organisation based on Sayyid Qutb’s teachings had been formed: the Muslim Youth Organisation.
During the political turmoil of the 1970s, clashes began to break out at KU among and between the various leftist and Islamist political factions after a communist group held viewings of a controversial film, Beghairi Khuda[Without God]. The Muslim Youth Organisation, as well as leftist groups on campus, were all plotting their ascension to power – and none shied away from the potential for violence.
In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) staged a violent coup against the government of Daud Khan. Islamists, Maoists and other political rivals of the PDPA regime were summarily rounded up, arrested and, in many instances, executed. This led to a widespread rebellion among everyday Afghans – from shopkeepers to farmers, from students and scholars, to doctors and engineers.
The movement became known as the mujahideen. Maoist guerrillas also took up arms and went underground. Little did anyone know at the time that these comrades and colleagues would go on to fight each other in a bloody civil war that destroyed the city in which they all met.
Hekmatyar was one of the most divisive of the mujahideeen commanders, and there is no denying that he and his men committed numerous atrocities. He received huge amounts of funding from the CIA, funnelled through Pakistan, won the support of Britain’s MI6 and once met Margaret Thatcher.
But after the mujahideen managed to push out the Soviet occupiers and then topple Najibullah Ahmadzai’s communist regime, it was Hekmatyar who refused to join other mujahideen leaders in a unity government – leading to more conflict, which all sides blamed on each other.
But when it came to destroying the city and raining down rockets on Kabul’s civilians, Hekmatyar was not alone.
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (currently a high ranking politician within today’s national government), Abdul Rashid Dostum (vice-president of Afghanistan), Mohammed Mohaqiq (also a leading figure in Ghani’s unity government) along with the deceased/assassinated former mujahideen leaders Abdul Ali Mazari (killed 1995) Burhanuddin Rabbani (former president, assassinated 2011) and Ahmad Shah Masoud (assassinated 2001) all participated in the bloodletting in Afghanistan’s civil war.
|What’s the difference at this point? The government is already full of crooks and war criminals|
“Although many around the country are hesitant, or even horrified and angry about Hekmatyar’s return, they understand that if we single out Hekmatyar over others, all hell could break loose,” says Mohsin Khan Mohmand, an activist and independent journalist based in Kabul.
Mohmand was referring particularly to the likelihood of political violence if Hekmatyar were to be taken to trial for past crimes. “Besides ,” he added, “ what’s the difference at this point? The government is already full of crooks and war criminals.”
Return of the Hek
After making initial stops in Laghman and Nangarhar this past April, Hekmatyar made his way to Kabul with an estimated 300-plus-vehicle caravan. Although it was reported that this was the first time Hekmatyar had entered Kabul in 20 years, such a claim would be hard to prove as Hekmatyar has long been elusive, having never been apprehended and narrowly escaping at least one US drone strike – a point of pride for his followers that only adds to the Islamist leader’s mystique.
Addressing a gathering at a government compound in Laghman, Hekmatyar called on the Taliban to drop their arms and “join the caravan of peace” with Ashraf Ghani’s Unity Government.
Hekmatyar toned down his usual anti-US rhetoric but still warned foreign powers not to “test your ammunition on our oppressed people”, adding that a foreign presence would only be tolerated as long as it was centred on the will of Afghans.
“If you are working to help Afghanistan, we are grateful, but if you are fighting here for your own political and economic interests, we ask you to stop using Afghanistan as your rival’s battlefield and instead face each other directly.”
|If he wants to give up the jihad, fine, let him – maybe he’s become weak. But to call on us to drop our arms against the US and its imposed government is anti-Islamic|
All of this has angered the Taliban and soured relations between Hizb-i-Islami and the broader Taliban network. In January 2017, Taliban officials in Nangarhar told me: “It has never been this bad, there’s nothing left between us and them,” referring to the relations between the Taliban and Hekmatyar.
“If he wants to give up the jihad, fine, let him – maybe he’s become weak. But to call on us to drop our arms against the US and its imposed government is anti-Islamic.”
Beyond the as-yet-untested rhetoric of laying down arms, Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul is a blow to the Taliban and their activities in areas where Hizb-i-Islami and their affiliates have power. But what is bad for the Taliban is good for Ashraf Ghani and his Unity Government.
Two years into his presidency, Ashraf Ghani’s government is still plagued with wanton corruption and infighting. This past April, President Ghani dismissed Zia Masoud from his post as “special envoy for reform and good governance”.
On the 25th anniversary of the Mujahideen’s victory over Dr Najib’s communist regime, Zia Masoud took the opportunity to “apologise” to the Afghan public for having supported Ghani in the first place: “Today in front of all of you, I apologise to all of you. I cut off all my relations with this government which is being led by four suspicious people.”
Masoud went on to call for the overthrow of Ghani if he did not willingly step down: “First a public mobilisation should be made to force the president to resign, second, establishing a transitional government and preparing the situation for power transition to the next government and then, an early election should be held.”
Unfortunately for Ghani, Masoud is not the only problem his administration faces. Currently, there is also a battle to oust Vice-President General Dostum, who is embroiled in a scandal in which he is alleged to have had a political rival, former Jowzjan Governor Ahmad Ishchi, raped with the barrel of an AK47. There was a standoff lasting hours after security officials were sent to free the former governor from the VP’s Sher Pour home on February 21.
On May 19, Dostum left the country in a hurry, heading for Turkey, in what his spokespeople have called “a health crisis”. But those at the airport report seeing the vice-president walk himself normally into the plane, and whispers coming from inside the government suggest Dostum appears to have fled the country to avoid being held accountable for the latest in a lifetime of atrocities.
“General Dostum never leaves the country but remains alongside his people during difficult times,” his spokesperson said.
Internal rifts aside, the National Unity Government has been losing control of a half-baked and disingenuous narrative that Afghanistan – or at least its five major cities – are supposedly safe and stable.
The facts on the ground are not Ghani’s friend: civilian casualties are up (especially among children), the government currently only controls 60 percent of the country, the Taliban are holding or contending to hold the other 40 percent, more than a million people have been forced to return from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran with more on their way, and more than 700,000 were internally displaced this past year alone.
These problems, coupled with the latest huge attack by the Taliban – which killed over 200 ANA soldiers in Mazar e Sharif – has made it hard for the government to continue making its claims that “Afghanistan is safe”. The false narrative peddled by both the Ghani administration and EU officials hold serves no other purpose than to ease the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers from Europe.
|Regional and global powers continue to jockey for influence inside the country, each funding and sometimes arming their favoured group, sowing continued discord, fuelling more factionalism and sectarianism|
The capabilities of the Taliban and others such as Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) have not dissipated. The Taliban are more powerful than they have been at any point since the start of the war and although IS-K has been dealt many blows this past year, they continue to conduct successful and egregiously violent attacks in major cities, including an attack on Afghan National Army Hospital. More recently, they have targeted Afghan news outlet Radio Television Afghanistan in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
The sophistication and success of militant groups in Afghanistan are not the only forces standing in the way of the Unity Government’s reconciliation or a lasting peace – Afghanistan’s most noted historical problem still exists and is worse than ever. Regional and global powers continue to jockey for influence inside the country, each funding and sometimes arming their favoured group, sowing continued discord, fuelling more factionalism and sectarianism.
The Great Game continued
Both Russia and Iran have recently revealed that they have been in contact with Taliban representatives and had even supported the group. Stopping short of confessing to have armed the Taliban, both Iran and Russia have stated that the Taliban were a partner in the fight against IS-K.
The US, however, has accused the Russians of supplying small arms to the Taliban – an accusation which Russia denies. But the most commonly held belief is that both Russia and Iran are stepping in to ensure that the US remains bogged down and bleeding – by supplying and arming the Taliban.
Now that closer scrutiny is peering over Pakistan – which all believe to be the main supplier of Taliban fighters inside Afghanistan.
“We’re used to this,” Mohmand said with a mix of acceptance and frustration. “They come to commit their violence and convince us that war is our only solution, but its never in our interests – it’s always this king or that commander or general. For the sake of Allah, can these people just leave us alone? If we destroy ourselves then let us – it’s not the same as an occupation or foreign meddling.”
The US, now into its 16th year of the longest foreign war in US history, is even further from pacifying the country than they were back in 2001 or 2002. And the US has still failed to outline any concrete policy towards Afghanistan. Deadlines have come and gone, troop numbers fall and rise, but there seems to be no end in sight.
Although many questions still remain as to the exact reason Hekmatyar decided to change course and accept a “peace deal” with the National Unity Government – especially while US and NATO troops remain in the country – most believe the old warlord was worried about becoming irrelevant after so many years underground.
Others claim that Pakistan, where he is alleged to have been hiding out, had abandoned him. There are even rumours flying around claiming Hekmatyar is still on the Pakistani ISI’s payroll, and his return is meant to further the agenda of Pakistan inside the Afghan government.
Questioning whether or not Hekmatyar can help facilitate peace or whether he should have been welcomed back at all is not of much relevance or use.
The reality is that the National Unity Government is full of leaders who are themselves criminal, from the very top, to the very bottom, and all have been cowed by the US while Hekmatyar stubbornly remained in armed opposition.
His return fills a gaping void inside Afghanistan’s government, as far as a massive part of Afghanistan’s population is concerned, with patience with both the US and NATO presence, as well as the government itself, wearing frighteningly thin.
In theory, Hekmatyar’s return is a big win for Ashraf Ghani.
But it remains to be seen what will happen in the coming weeks and months as US President Donald Trump continues his volatile term of office.
If Washington decides to send more toops to Afghanistan, they will be welcomed by Ghani and most of his government – proving to the Afghan people once again that their opinions, lives and suffering will continue to take a back seat to the interests of rich, powerful men who live far away from Afghanistan’s never-ending violence.
Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area of California, and co-founder of the independent media project Docuemtning Afghanistan. Mohammed’s recent work focuses on refugees, the War on Terror, and militant groups operating inside Afghanistan.
Follow him on Twitter: @brwnrage