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Afghanistan: Why Ashraf Ghani's 'deal' with Hekmatyar is a mistake

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

For all the attention that the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami party agreement has attracted, it is, as yet, not a done deal. For that to happen, Hekmatyar and President Ashraf Ghani will have to affix their signatures in addition to those who have already done so.

The latest reports from Kabul indicate that Hekmatyar is reluctant to come to the Afghan capital and the NUG is insisting that it is there that he must sign the agreement. He is also asking for a time table for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. However, if Hekmatyar does reach Kabul, he and other Afghans would be conscious that in 1996 the Taliban were responsible for Hekmatyar's departure from the Afghan capital and ironically it is because of the Taliban that he will now return to the city, as this article will show.

The justification

The NUG leaders, in private conversations, assert that Hekmatyar is a pale shadow of what he once was-a particularly violent and savage leader of the Afghan Jihad -- and therefore his participation in Afghan public life will not be disruptive. This need not be true for Hekmatyar was always quiet, soft-spoken and polite -- very different from the havoc he wreaked. He is also crafty, a master of shifting political allegiances and alliances, ever-ready to change sides. After he departed Kabul in 1996 he initially lived in Iran but for over the past decade he has been in Pakistan under the patronage of the ISI. They have used him and still do but after he failed to take Kabul after the fall of Najibullah in 1992 the Taliban who Pakistan helped to create have had the first claim to their affection, a place held by him during the jihad.

Ideologically Hekmatyar pursues puritanical Salafist Islamic doctrines which endeared him to the Saudis. As the then favourite the bulk of US and Saudi assistance for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen was passed on by the ISI to him. For all this the record of the fighting record of the HeI cadres during the Jihad was always suspect as distinct from that of Ahmad Shah Massoud's men with whom they had a bitter rivalry. It is unlikely that the Panjshir valley, Massoud's power-base and also that of CEO Abdullah will take kindly to Hekmatyar's return. Thus while Abdullah has been persuaded, after a reluctance lasting many months to accept the agreement and perhaps Panjshiri leaders are going along as well they will be under pressure. This may impact their credibility with their power base and therefore on the NUG itself.

Ashraf Ghani is desperate to show that reconciliation processes can work. He has made no progress with the Taliban who with Pakistan's encouragement are continuing with their successful insurgency and has therefore pursued with Hekmatyar. Earlier during his Presidency Hamid Karzai was also keen to show that armed groups could be persuaded to give up violence and come within the fold of the Afghan constitutional processes.

The concessions

To achieve this objective the NUG has made significant concessions both substantive and symbolic. In the former category is the assurance that the HeI leadership will be consulted on, "certain important national issues" and the party's military cadres and commanders will be eligible for recruitment to the security and defence forces. In the latter is the mention of Hekmatyar as the "Amir" of the HeI and that special protocol privileges, to be worked out by a special commission, will be accorded to Hekmatyar.

The NUG has also committed to get US and UN sanctions against Hekmatyar to be lifted. Clearly Hekmatyar wants that his prominent role in the jihad be recognised and his slaughter of the Kabul people be forgotten. For the record the HeI has expressed its regrets for the killings in Kabul after the agreement was finalised.

US has welcomed the deal, despite Hekmatyar's role in killing US personnel in Afghanistan

The US, unmindful of its deep reservations of Hekmatyar, who was designated by it and later the UN on its approach as a global terrorist, has welcomed the agreement. It has overlooked Hekmatyar's role in the killing of US personnel in Afghanistan. This is indicative of US strategic desperation to get out of its longest war by holding out an example to the Taliban. It is unlikely though that the Taliban will pay serious attention to it though for a time Hekmatyar had come under Mullah Omar's umbrella. The EU too has welcomed the agreement which it hopes will be implemented soonest.

For over four decades Afghanistan has been unsettled with political systems being changed through violence, society in turmoil and the economy unable to utilise its natural resources. The Afghan people want all this to end and some of them for this purpose are willing to the butchery undertaken by the likes of Hekmatyar. However there are many for whom it will be impossible to accept him. Thus even while his return will not positively impact on the security situation it may lead to political confusion and dissension. Obviously that is a price that the Ghani and Abdullah are willing to pay for what is essentially publicity. The prudent course may have been to ignore Hekmatyar.

First published: 24 September 2016, 8:16 IST
Vivek Katju @CatchNews

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat who has served as India's ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand.