Ex-Warlord’s return raises hopes for peace

In a significant new development, the exiled Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar recently returned to Kabul after 20 years. Controversial yet widely revered by the Pashtuns in Afghanistan, the prominent ex-warlord has retained immense influence over his followers, and his symbolic homecoming has already unsettled his opponents. In his heyday, Hekmatyar spearheaded an effective and lethal resistance movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and his career peaked with two brief stints as prime minister.

Last year, the Afghan government granted Hekmatyar amnesty for his role in the civil war of the 1990s and a peace accord was signed with the aim of winning over an important faction allied with the Taliban. He was designated a “terrorist” by the US State Department in 2003 but recently the UN Security Council lifted sanctions on him and he decided to move back to Afghanistan.

Notably, the US State Department expressed the hope that the final agreement would help end the violence in Afghanistan and the US Embassy declared it was “a step in bringing the conflict in Afghanistan to a peaceful end.” The people in Afghanistan are sick of war and the prospect of Hekmatyar’s return has given them hope in the new peace process. However, conditions in Afghanistan further deteriorated in the last several months and the US has had to reconsider the option of going for a new “troop surge” to stem a Taliban takeover. US Defence Secretary General James Mattis recently paid a visit to Afghanistan to chalk out a strategy to bring the 16-year war to a decisive end. The recent MOAB strike on ISIS hideouts is also an indication that the US is losing patience and wants results.

Things have gone from bad to worse, mainly due to the Afghan National Army, which has proved to be largely ineffective and incapable due to a number of reasons such as lack of motivation, corruption, widespread drug addiction, the poor quality of rations and equipment, and insufficient training. As it is,  30,000 “ghost soldiers” were recently found to be drawing salaries and had to be struck off the list by the US authorities. The Mazar Sharif attack further exposed fault-lines in the Afghan army as well as the overall governance and leadership, President Ghani had appointed incapable people to head the security forces and terrorists managed to infiltrate the armed forces and cause chaos. In the first eight months of 2016, the army suffered 15,000 casualties, and a US military report disclosed that 33% of the soldiers injured in combat never return or overstay their leave.

Hekmatyar declared his formula for peace soon after his return, pressing for negotiations with the Taliban

Consequently, the Taliban progressively gained 15% more ground in 2016, notwithstanding the presence of 13,000 international troops, moving further north to extend their influence from their traditional strongholds in the south, east and central parts of Afghanistan. As of now, Ghani’s government hardly controls more than 50% of the country, according to the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. The Taliban military strategy is to consolidate its gains further by capturing provincial capitals while the Afghan government has rapidly lost control of many districts. As a result, the US may be sending 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan soon, while Nato might also pitch in and send 10, 000 new allied troops as the war enters its 16th year. Afghanistan is about to become the next big war theatre as the fighting season heats up, and there are uncanny similarities to Syria with the latest addition of ISIS fighters emerging as a threat to Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran.

However, securing the cooperation of Hekmatyar’ s powerful bloc might defuse the situation as his Hizb-i-Islami party draws support from Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic base. Interestingly, though, even the present Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, depends on the same ethnic electorate for remaining relevant as a politician. Nevertheless, it is time for Ghani to support the peace process and help Hekmatyar in his efforts.

Predictably losing no time, Hekmatyar declared his formula for peace soon after his return, pressing for negotiations with the Taliban. He openly criticized his former rivals, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, saying: “This division of power is not God’s will, nor it is based on the constitution” about their shaky coalition, which was put together after no clear winner emerged from a controversial election.

Advising the Taliban, Hekmatyar said they were providing the reason for the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan and that stopping the fighting would leave the latter with no option but to withdraw. He went on to say: “Let’s bring peace to the country first and tell the foreign forces that Afghans are able to sort out their issues themselves and we want them to leave Afghanistan,” adding that, “No one has any justification for the presence of foreign troops.”

Adopting a moderate new approach, Hekmatyar accepted the constitution and free speech and even regretted the absence of women at public events. He seems all set to emerge as an important player as he volunteered to mediate between the Taliban and the government, and the fact that he advocated a more centralized government is a hint as to his future political plans. Since his arrival, he has addressed three public gatherings in eastern Afghanistan as well as at the presidential palace in Kabul. A charismatic speaker, Hekmatyar asked all politicians to bring their families home: “Bring your families back. I have returned with my family.”

Finally, there is no doubt that a timely intervention is needed to end the futile “endless war” in Afghanistan; the US has already spent $1 trillion dollars on the venture with no lasting results. The Ghani government has failed to deliver as there was no clear winner from the beginning. Holding fresh elections might be the only way to reunite Afghanistan and get a clearer picture of the real stakeholders.

At this point in time, a reconciliation process is exactly what Afghanistan requires, and Hekmatyar seems like the person most likely to successfully mediate an end to the ongoing civil war. This would certainly be preferable to the US going back to square one and starting a new war in Afghanistan.

This article was originally posted to Asia Times, and is re-posted here with the permission of the author.

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Sabena Siddiqui

Contributing Analyst at CommandEleven
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on China, the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She is contributing analyst for China's state websiteChina.org.cn, Hong Kong-based Asia Times, Russian think tank Katehon and Islamabad-based think tank, CommandEleven.
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