The Return of the Warlord

After a lapse of almost two decades, former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul with a fair degree of pomp and show last week, as bystanders were neither jubilant nor fearful. Some recalled his rocket-ridden tactics which obliterated Kabul. Thus, his return was met with a mixture of nervousness and hope; the noise of the volleys still reverberated in the minds of the onlookers. The former premier also known as the “Butcher of Kabul” or “Rocketyar” returned to the highly-vied capital after his outfit, Hezb-i-Islami cracked a peace deal with the National Unity Government (NUG).

The highly-touted hardliner arrived in Kabul in an entourage of several hundred vehicles under the protection of the Afghan National Army (ANA). The man responsible for much of the violence and carnage in the Civil War from 1992 till 1996 was now being given a protocol accorded to a select group of people

Surprisingly, the government worked industriously the past year to bring him back into the fray. In February, the United Nations Security Council dropped sanctions against him upon the request of the Afghan government.  He was also removed from the list of designated terrorists. Besides, the government reintegrated him by granting judicial immunity for past crimes. These were all Hekmatyar’s direct demands for coming back to Kabul.

Earlier in a statement released by Ghani’s office, the deal was termed as a landmark. “Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return will have remarkable effects on peace, stability, prosperity and development in all aspects,” a spokesman for the president’s office said.

Given the turmoil that the government is facing in regards the maintenance of peace and growing fissures in the political setup, the euphoria is understandable. The worsening security of the country has necessitated the start of a peace initiative with different warlords in a hope to end fighting and Hekmatyar’s Pashtun background made him an important one to be convinced and encouraged.

Speaking on the occasion Hekmatyar called Taliban as his brothers and reiterated his recent desire for them to also to renounce the use of force.  This could well be called as an attempt to woo the Taliban by a soft message.

Hekmatyar has urged an end to war and conflict. In his first public address in 20 years, the firebrand Pashtun warlord called upon all factions including the Taliban to unite in efforts for peace and reconciliation. This is nothing less than a sea change, for the Taliban were her arch-nemesis and had compelled him to retreat into Iran. However, his proclivities for vacillation and violence makes him an untrustworthy bet. There are reasons to cast aspersions on his seemingly benign appeals.

Speaking at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul, Hekmatyar said: “We hate those who insist on continuing the war in Afghanistan – the war which sacrifices only Afghans and the war that is being justified and financed from abroad.” Hekmatyar, throughout his military and political career has taken help in various forms and manifestations from countries to include Pakistan. Much to his discredit, he more often than not could not despite the disbursement of massive finances.

Many factors may have compelled him to return into mainstream politics. An unstable government seemingly could give him political breathing space and a chance to re-establish his party now that he has signed a truce. This could be a tactical step till he garners enough support ahead of the next elections in 2019.

Despite hopeful statements from the Afghan government, the re-emergence of the once-notorious leader is being seen with skepticism and fear. While his backers sang anthems in the vernacular language, onlookers recalled his role in the civil war in the 1990s.  Until the Taliban’s onslaught, Hekmatyar invoked a “reign of terror” through a rocket blitzkrieg in the capital some twenty years. However, needless to say, the Afghans are tired of war; and they want an end to it by any and all means. Many have welcomed his return and hoped that this will herald peace and stability in Afghanistan; this in all probability is a far shot.

It must be accentuated once again that Hekmatyar caused destruction, fear and turmoil in Afghanistan. People who witnessed the carnage turned towards the Taliban who at the very least brought about a semblance of stability. Hence, the fact that the deal has been welcomed by Western governments is an anomaly that raises many eyebrows. It is an indictment of the US establishment’s willingness to talk with the Taliban

On the contrary, the return of the Pashtun warlord has been berated by human rights organizations. Pardoning his role in the wreckage of Kabul and other human rights abuses is deemed as an insult to the afflicted families.

It is hard to fathom the importance attached to the induction of Hekmatyar.  A weak Hezb-i-Islami and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with an uninspiring fighting and political force will find it mighty hard to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Afghan Taliban are controlling swathes of territory; they are attacking across the country with impunity and brazenness. A further testimony to the rise of the Taliban and the inability of the government is the swift recapture of Kunduz.  At a time when the Taliban considers the government on the back foot, it is difficult to hope that they would listen to Hekmatyar.

Pundits predict that Hekmatyar could further rupture an already fragile political consortium and increase ethnic cleavages. The Tajiks under the command of Ahmed Zia feel marginalized and hence they could form a force to fight a tough battle in the next elections along ethnic lines. The Uzbeks led by Rashid Dostum are disenchanted with Ghani’s non-fulfillment of promises. Besides, there are other groups that are dissatisfied with the government, to include Hazaras. It could be aptly argued that Hekmatyar’s eventual return from dormancy may further go on to skew the dispensation. The government’s new appeasement policies with Hekmatyar would not go down well with the Shia Hazaras. His adverse remarks about Hazaras not finding shelter in the country three years ago will further alienate the community, causing deep sectarian rifts.

With Hekmatyar’s ethnic background; his vociferous support for a strong central government and his scathing criticism of the contours of the National Unity Government (NUG), the next elections could be potentially very critical.  Many believe that the next elections will not only see a tough power squabble but also a fierce post-election battle with groups being adamant and obdurate. If the vision of a united Hezb-i-Islami fructifies then the Pashtun leader may very well go on to become a real challenger in the 2019 elections. Ghani has to re-think the sagacity behind this Afghan version of the “Truth and Reconciliation” program.

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