Afghan warlord in from the cold, again

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar circa 2013

In a twist 20 years in the making, former Afghan prime minister and long-time war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-i Islami militia, just cut a deal with an Afghan government that previously wanted him dead:

The Afghan government signed a draft peace deal on Thursday with a small insurgent faction led by a warlord who has been designated a “global terrorist” by the United States.

The faction, Hezb-i-Islami, whose name means Islamic Party, agreed to cease hostilities in exchange for government recognition of the group and support for the removal of United Nations and American sanctions against its contentious leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, according to the draft agreement.

Of all the warlords who have helped destabilize Afghanistan over the past few decades, Hekmatyar is perhaps the most…well, let’s go with “opportunistic.” Hizb-i Islami’s roots go back to Hekmatyar’s days in Kabul University in the 1970s, where Hekmatyar fell in with a crowd of radicals including future Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and future Northern Alliance commander and al-Qaeda victim Ahmad Shah Massoud. Unfortunately, Hekmatyar apparently had this tiny eccentricity whereby he kept murdering or trying to murder his fellow radicals, and so naturally he and his followers separated from Rabbani and Massoud and their followers. The latter group, the Jamaat-i Islami, sought to Islamize Afghanistan’s government through the political process, while Hekmatyar’s group was more militant about achieving its aims, and more exclusionist about non-Pashtuns (Rabbani and Massoud were both ethnic Tajiks).

Both of these Islamist movements were forced to shift their centers of gravity into northern Pakistan, where Hekmatyar made some strong–but apparently not that strong–connections with Pakistani intelligence, who cultivated him as a potential asset in Kabul. Of course, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 most of the disagreements between Afghanistan’s Islamists were papered over in the face of a common enemy. Hekmatyar, who had an organization already on the ground that had already been preparing for violent resistance to the government in Kabul, wound up as one of the key resistance leaders, and consequently received considerable financial and material support from Pakistan, the US, Britain, and the Saudis. But Hekmatyar apparently spent as much time and energy figuring out ways to screw his fellow resistance leaders (mostly Massoud)–fighting them, double-crossing them, etc.–as he did fighting the Soviets, such that at any given point in the war you couldn’t be entirely sure which side Hekmatyar was actually on.

After the Soviets were expelled and their socialist client in Kabul fell in 1992, it looked briefly like Hekmatyar might serve as prime minister in a national unity government led by Rabbani, but instead Jamaat-i Islami, Hizb-i Islami, and Jumbish, the Uzbek party led by current Afghan VP Abdul Rashid Dostum, spent the next four years fighting a civil war, during which Hekmatyar established close associations with some people with whom you might be familiar, like Osama bin Laden. Initially, Hekmatyar was supported by Pakistan, but as the war dragged on the Pakistanis realized that Hekmatyar’s actions had alienated even most of the Pashtun for whom he claimed to be fighting, and so they began to back a fourth faction–the Taliban. Hekmatyar did become Rabbani’s PM in 1993 under an attempted power-sharing arrangement that quickly fell apart, and again in 1996 in a desperate attempt to cobble together a national unity government to resist the Taliban, but he didn’t last more than a year in either stint, and in the end he went into exile in Iran to escape the Taliban.

When the US invaded in late 2001, Hekmatyar saw his way back in to Afghan politics and declared his opposition to the invasion. Iran, which in the pre-“Axis of Evil” days following 9/11 was trying to be helpful to the American war effort, expelled Hekmatyar, and he and his followers moved back into Afghanistan and began to fight alongside the Taliban, their former enemies. He may have been partially responsible for smuggling bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda’s high command out of Tora Bora and into Pakistan–at least, he says he was. In 2008, with al-Qaeda in tatters and the Taliban out of power, Hekmatyar shifted again, declaring hilariously that he had no ties to either of those groups, in an effort to gain some kind of role in Hamid Karzai’s government. He’s always been seen as more amenable to negotiations with Kabul than the Taliban or the Haqqani network, the other two main poles (which may really be the same pole at this point) of the Afghan resistance, and, lo and behold, apparently he really was. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Under the terms of the deal as they’ve been reported, Hizb-i Islami is now out of the fight, and in turn Hekmatyar will be pardoned for his extensive list of crimes against the Afghan people and will be allowed to return to the political process in some fashion. International sanctions that have been levied against him (RE: his extensive list of crimes) will be lifted. He’ll also be given an “honorary” position in the government that supposedly doesn’t have any actual power, and cynics among you (well, among us) may be wondering how that’s going to work given that the current Afghan “unity” government hasn’t really been able to sort out the offices it already has (hello, “Chief Executive Officer” Abdullah! What’s that? You’re calling President Ghani “unfit for office” today? Well, that seems perfectly normal and stable to me!), but please don’t harsh everybody’s buzz over those sorts of details.

Seriously though, this is one of the two/three prongs of the Afghan civil war who just reached a deal with Kabul to stop fighting, and that’s nothing to sneeze at even if accomplishing the same thing with the other prong(s) promises to be a much heavier lift. If it wasn’t already clear before, recent events in Afghanistan have made it clear that there will not be a military end to the civil war. After 15 years of violence, the Taliban, incredibly, controls more of the country today than it has controlled at any time since the very early days of the US invasion–maybe as much as half the country, though as so much of Afghanistan is sparsely populated it’s hard to know exactly who controls what. The money the US keeps spending to build up an Afghan army and an Afghan civil society isn’t accomplishing anything, to a large extent because it’s very difficult to build up state institutions in the midst of an active civil war. So negotiations are the only way to end this war, and this deal with Hekmatyar–assuming he doesn’t “opportunistically” decide to reverse himself on it at some point–is at least some movement in that direction.



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