Homecoming is often a matter of great happiness. But when the one who is coming back home has a past that is mired in bloodletting, violence and chaos, the return becomes less celebratory. Similar emotions are being witnessed in Afghanistan currently as the leader of what had hitherto been the second largest militant group in the country, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, makes his official appearances there after spending almost 20 years outside the national territory.
From billboards welcoming his return to the ones that have been defaced reflect the mood of Afghanistan - a divisive leader has been re-integrated into the mainstream of a state that is facing a tough time getting its political semblance right. There are some who have welcomed the leader back into the political fold; there are many who cannot forget the violent past this man had unleashed. Called the 'Butcher of Kabul' and a 'charismatic leader' in the same breath, Hekmatyar's return and the amnesty (and privileges) granted to him under the peace deal has divided the country into naysayers and those who see this as a move in the right direction.
Differences in opinion have also emerged on the possible ramifications for the political direction of Afghanistan following his mainstreaming. On the one end of the spectrum are those who believe that this reconciliation will result in good, on the other end are those who believe that spade will be driven further in the already politically and socially vitiated environment of Afghanistan. Added to this are apprehensions of the regional powers around Afghanistan which consider the mainstreaming of a former militant party that is known to have been a protégé of Wahhabi sponsors as fraught with geo-political challenges.
The return of Hekmatyar comes after almost six years of intense negotiations and is being hailed, or rather portrayed, as a victory of Ashraf Ghani. Notwithstanding the tarnished record of Hekmatyar, the re-integration of his Hezb-e-Islami (HIG) into the mainstream politics of Afghanistan is apparently believed to be holding out a promise - that Taliban will follow suit. This however, is too far-fetched a belief.
To begin with, while the Taliban has not taken an official position on the peace deal and Hekmatyar's renunciation of the 'jihad', there are reports that indicate that for the Taliban this has been an act of treachery to the common cause. The announcement of another round of spring offensive - called Operation Mansouri - indicates that the Taliban is not in the mood to be inspired by the calls for peace by Hekmatyar.
Hekmatyar’s return also reeks of political opportunism. What had once been the most favored of the seven mujahedeen tanzims (popularly known as ‘Peshawar Seven’) was gradually reduced to rump in terms of military strength, might and efficacy starting with the rise of Taliban. The diversion of monetary and machine power from HIG to Taliban following the former’s failure to capture Kabul meant that the largesse that had once enabled it to create and oil its organizational dynamics was no longer available at its disposal to keep the ranks and files contended. With the fall of Taliban in 2001 and the increasing American discontent with Hekmatyar – who, by the way, is still on the list of US designated terrorists – HIG further lost its operational presence in Afghanistan. A split within the party – into a political wing led by Arghandiwal and a military branch led by Hekmatyar – took a toll on its operational strength. Although HIG did manage to rattle Afghanistan through (sporadic and less intense) bombings and other attacks, it could not manage to catapult itself to that level of importance from where it could bargain to stay out of reconciliation for long. Figure this for instance: while HIG’s rhetoric against the presence of the foreign forces stands, the fact that the ‘withdrawal of the foreign troops’ was not anymore a stubborn pre-condition to the peace talks is indicative of how urgent and important this peace deal looked to Hekmatyar and his HIG.
Then the despotic and dismissive attitude of Hekmatyar on various concerns – such as the rights and freedom of women; ethnic minorities (particularly Hazaras), freedom of press, and the like – are also well known. His description as the ‘Butcher of Kabul’ and the nickname ‘Rocketyaar’ he has been given are a result of his targeted attacks against the non-Pahstun masses particularly during the Civil War (1992-96). What more? Hekmatyar was also behind the assassination of many of his (non-Pashtun) political rivals in Pakistan while he camped there during the Afghan ‘jihad’ and the years after.
To add to this, Hekmatyar is also known for his flippant attitude towards political alliances and deals and which betray the fact that his concern for political power often overshadows his staunch belief in extra-conservative ideology. No wonder that such an attitude towards political commitment has generated appropriate apprehensions about the fate of the peace deal he has signed with the National Unity Government. Furthermore, his ‘faith’ in democracy too is as flimsy as it can be. Interestingly, Hekmatyar has been constant in calling for rounds of voting in a bid to legitimize his control and power. However, as frequent as his calls for voting have been, equally frequent has been his dismissal of them when he loses the count. And, what often followed his rejection of the mandate that he himself had called is intense violence. With the Provincial and District elections around the corner and the Presidential election not too far away, would Afghanistan once again have moments of deja-vu?
Styled as a leader of the Pashtun population in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar has proven to have less to offer to those who are on the other side of this ethnic fence. The compulsions of democracy – which promote galvanization of votes and power around cleavages of various kinds – are further expected to compound Hekmatyar’s political non-permeability. His divisive political presence, therefore, is expected to further polarize the political situation in Afghanistan where a trend of negative and destructive mobilization of ethnic allegiances has been on for long. The lack of inter-ethnic trust and the self-aggrandizing nature of the political leaders across the board have made alliances between parties a half-hearted marriage of convenience. In this, the addition of Hekmatyar to the fragmented political milieu of Afghanistan is expected to further create separated and distant coteries of politically mobilized ethnic supporters.
While the prospects of peace returning to Afghanistan appear less in the absence of reconciliation with Taliban, the arrival of Hekmatyar, it is suggested, could probably have a pull-effect. One, the futility of waging continuous war in Afghanistan has not been lost on many Afghans. For instance, the ‘Taliban safe zone’ program led by the (all powerful) police chief in Kandahar has generated some positive results. Two, the charisma and appeal of Hekmatyar – especially as an Islamic leader who fought two jihads (against Soviets and Americans) – has generated following for him especially in the religiously moored hinterlands of Afghanistan. As a result, Hekmatyar’s claim that the fights waged by the Taliban are not ‘holy jihad’ but are ‘pointless unholy wars’ could possibly have many heads nodding in approval.
Ripe with the potential to become either a step towards peace in Afghanistan or towards further fragmentation of its political and social environment, the return of Hekmatyar to the public political life is being watched with great concern. What this dyadic potentiality eventually gives way to - a positive or negative actuality – is for the time to tell.
Chayanika Saxena is working as a Research Associate with a New Delhi-based think-tank, Society for Policy Studies and is also Research Mentor to an upcoming think-tank in Kabul, Afghanistan National Interests. Equipped with five years of research experience and working knowledge of written and spoken Dari, she is specializing on Afghanistan with a particular focus on geo-political risks to state-building. She has published previously on South Asia Monitor, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Indian Defence Review apart from contributing research articles in national and international refereed journals.