Afghanistan: Peace with Warlord Sends Mixed Signals
Is it finally peace time in Afghanistan? Cutting peace deals with warring factions is generally considered one step forward in the direction of peace. But what if this one step forward for peace is actually two steps backwards for justice? These are the questions that are being asked about the peace deal that has been brokered in Afghanistan – between the government of Afghanistan and the militant group, Hezb-e-Islami.
Ordinarily, the path towards peace entails, at the basic level, reconciliation between all the factions involved in a conflict. In the case of Afghanistan too, and as persistent efforts at getting Taliban to the table of talks have come to show, getting the major stakeholders on the same page lies at heart of ensuring effective and sustainable reconciliation. However, equally pertinent are concerns related to justice.
Both theoretically and practically, balancing peace with justice has not been a plain sailing. In fact, most often, these two components which are equally essential for achieving and sustaining effective reconciliation have thrown up major dilemmas. While, ideally, both peace and justice should go hand in hand, reinforcing each other in the process, their actual realization is often far off this ideal mark. In fact, in many cases, instead of working in tandem peace and justice appear divergent in the means they employ to achieve the same goal of reconciliation. Approaching a shared goal in different ways, the end product of such a forked path, expectedly, leads nowhere; at least not anywhere close to what is expected.
Afghanistan, it appears, is charting the same forked path. In efforts to put an end to conflicts that have wrecked the country for over four decades, the Afghan government has brokered a peace deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar led Hezb-e-Islami (HEM), allowing in return of cessation of violence from this militant group full immunity from prosecution against the previously committed war crimes.
This peace deal that was being negotiated for two years has generated serious concerns about the signals it sends. At one level, apprehensions remain about the substantive execution of this peace deal. At another level, the clauses of the peace deal are being seen as having set a wrong precedent to follow. In addition to the probable, direct impacts of the peace deal, it is also being opined that the brokering of an accord between the HEM and Afghan government might have a deleterious impact on the prospects of negotiating with the Taliban. While it cannot be said with certainty that the Taliban – which has already refused to negotiate unless its demands are met – will further distance itself from the peace process, but given the rivalry that has persisted between it and the HEM, it is highly likely that the Taliban will not follow in its footsteps.
Let us look at these three direct and indirect fallouts individually.
Beginning with the probable non-substantive execution of the peace deal; it is feared, and not without basis, that the promises made in the peace deal might get reneged and that the deal might not be able to bring any substantive change on the ground. While all ‘voluntary’ contracts factor in an element of uncertainty, however in the case of the peace deal between the Afghan government and HEM, there is more than just an element of doubt about its faithful execution; there are ample reasons available for one to fear that the brokered deal might turn out to be a dud.
Afghanistan, which is touted for its sheer unpredictability, has witnessed variety of conflicts in the last four decades and with various domestic, regional and international actors adding to the mess. The ‘lines of conflict’ in Afghanistan, as an Indian ex-diplomat has noted, have shifted pretty often to impart any clarity on where loyalties of the warring factions lie. Hekmatyar’s HEM has been no exception to this ‘rule’.
As an Islamist organization that was at the forefront of the ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union during its decade long occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89), HEM had emerged from a movement that was galvanized at the Kabul University beginning 1969. Called ‘Saazmaan-i-Jawaanaan Musalmaan’ or ‘Muslim Youth’, this organization was incepted by some junior professors, of which Hekmatyar too was part, and students to fight the ‘Godless Communists’, whose ideology they believed was on the rise in Kabul University specifically and in the Kabul city at a larger level.
This organization was led by Burhannudin Rabbani, with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf as its vice-chair and Hekmatyar as its political director. While leading the movement together for almost a decade, it got split between these three leaders (primarily), with each creating their own militant/political groupings to fight the Soviets on the backing of American aid and Pakistani guidance.
A part of Peshawar Seven – the seven parties that were operating from Pakistan on the finances provided to them by CIA and logistical support lent by ISI – HEM, for its radical Islamist leanings, was believed to have been the most favored in the lot. Populated with seminaries and radical youth who were prepared for ‘jihad’ in the Madrassas that were being lined along the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, Hekmatyar’s HEM was expected to not only wage war against the Soviets – the American goal – but also establish a regime compliant to Pakistani dictates following the withdrawal of the USSR. However, things were to take a different course as the Soviets left Afghanistan.
Following the brief stint of a Communist-backed PDPA in power between 1989 and 1992, a scramble for power began between the various mujahedeen parties. Each of these seven parties (along with a lot of another eight that were ostensibly backed by Iran – ‘Tehran Eight’) saw themselves as ‘legitimate’ representative of Afghanistan and Afghan people and hence, fought for political control of Kabul.
Agreeing to a power-sharing agreement that came to be known as the ‘Peshawar Accord’, all mujahedeen parties except for Hekmatyar’s HEM agreed to establish a unity government on a power/seat rotation basis. While Hekmatyar was invited to become a part of the coalition government as its prime minister, he refused to assume the post on the ground that ‘in Afghanistan, coalition government is impossible because, this way or another, it is going to be weak and incapable of stabilizing the situation there’. Seeking full and undivided authority over Kabul and through that over the whole of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar launched rocket attacks on the capital from various locations, thereby earning the infamous epithet of ‘Gulbuddin Rocketyaar’. Having reneged on his promises in the past and for bringing ruin upon the capital of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar came to be known as the ‘butcher of Kabul’. A gross human rights violator, it has been reported that he had himself guided many attacks on Kabul, killing thousands of innocents in the process.
Thus, given the history of what he and his organization did to further wreck Afghanistan, not trusting his intentions and assurances spelt out in the recently concluded peace deal had to be the most likely reaction within Afghanistan and beyond. Furthermore, since he had also refused to sign the peace deal in the past – because of his unhappiness with certain provisions that, reportedly, were not disclosed to him during the negotiations – the apprehensions related to the execution of the present peace deal appear to be real and solid. Also, it needs to be noted that the peace deal is yet to come into effect as the draft is still to receive the signatures of the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani and Hekmatyar. So, if the specter of shifting lines of conflict in Afghanistan still looms large, we could still see the possibility of one party/parties to the contract going back on the deal.
The provisions of the deal have generated more serious concerns. The 3 chapters, 25 articles long peace deal was signed on September 10, 2016. Apart from calling upon HEM ‘to cut its ties with all terrorist groups and other illegal armed groups and that it will not further support them’ (Article 19) and that it shall participate in political, economic, defense and social domains of Afghanistan in line with the principles laid down in the Constitution, there isn’t anything much immediate and concrete that is expected of this group. On the other hand, the Government of Afghanistan has undertaken the role and responsibility to finance and secure the rehabilitation of the leader of HEM and those involved with the organization (as per Articles 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 14), in effecting pardoning and giving immunity to Hekmatyar and his people for the various atrocities they had committed.
While the peace deal has been welcomed by US, EU and United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), it has been severely criticized by human rights organizations and many political parties in the country. Hizb-e-Hambastagi party has strongly opposed to the inclusion of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the peace process. Moreover, addressing him as ‘his excellency’ and ‘honorable’ have angered many across the board. In fact, according to New York Times, the use of the word ‘amir’ for Hekmatyar is expected to anger the Taliban that reserves the title for its leader.
The Taliban, which has often drawn its swords on HEM, is expected not to follow suit and engage in the peace process unless its pre-requisites are met. Although it will not be wise to compare the two lots, especially given their respective size, appeal and status, it is being believed that the Taliban will further reinforce its decision to not to engage in the peace process now that its ‘rival’ has done so. It needs to be noted that the Taliban, which despite having received many setbacks in the past is still steadfast in its refusal to join the peace process, is not considerably harried about being granted immunity or amnesty. Their goals are larger than becoming a part of Afghanistan’s political process in its current format; they aim to overhaul the present system as they see it as illegitimate. In the light of the recently brokered peace deal, which appears to have eliminated one of Taliban’s contenders, it is more likely that the Taliban finding itself (almost) alone in the field will get emboldened further and become more stringent about the peace process.
In all, the deal brokered with the ‘honorable amir’ of an organization that had killed and affected thousands and thousands of people in Afghanistan generates more suspicion than confidence. Where the track record of Hekmatyar on keeping his promises has been flimsy, the human rights violations committed by him and HEM and the immunity granted from prosecution by the deal thereof has dampened hopes for ‘justful peace’ in Afghanistan.