National Security

Fighting by bullet and ballot in Afghanistan

Last week, ten Afghans and six Americans were killed in one of this year's worst insurgent attacks. While the bombing in Kabul raised eyebrows around the world, it was not mainly because of its deadliness, but because of the group behind it -- Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami (HIG).

Once one of the biggest players in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, HIG took an active role in the civil war of the 1990s and has since emerged as the second largest insurgent group in Afghanistan. Paradoxically, HIG is also a legal political party, whose members make up the largest voting bloc in parliament and are (at the least) former loyalists to Hekmatyar.  Some HIG members even serve as governors, ministers and presidential advisors to President Hamid Karzai. HIG -- the political party -- has publically disassociated itself from Hekmatyar, but many Afghans remain unconvinced, suspecting members of retaining strong attachments to and respect for their charismatic, fugitive warlord leader. Moreover, the militant and political branches of HIG retain a common strand of an Islamist ideology.

However, the story gets more complex as the group's insurgent wing has repeatedly received a ‘red-carpet' welcome in the presidential palace, with Karzai shaking hands with the envoys. Parts of the Afghan press were therefore particularly scathing after last week's bombing, writing such headlines as "The crime of the guests of the Palace." Unlike the Taliban, who refuse to talk to the government, HIG's military wing has embraced direct negotiations with Kabul. It has sent 17 delegations to Kabul over the past three years, though talks were suspended last year. Since then, delegations have only met politicians, including former rivals, and Western generals and diplomats.

HIG stopped its talks with the government in May 2012 to protest the signing of the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement. After last Thursday's attack, the group's spokesman told journalists it was in response to the Bilateral Security Agreement the United States and Afghanistan are currently negotiating. One of the key conditions of HIG's February 2012 peace offer has been that Kabul must refrain from signing any deal which allows foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

However, at the same time as ordering such a deadly attack, Hekmatyar has been saying positive things about next year's presidential elections and has suggested his party would participate by choosing a candidate to support.

What is one to make of all this? 

First, despite Hekmatyar's claims, hostility to U.S.-Afghan security agreements does not seem to be the main driver of the group's continuing armed opposition to the government. A recent HIG communique and interviews conducted by this author with several of the warlord's confidants suggest he is frustrated with the failure of peace talks and also weary of his never-ending, never-winning armed struggle. This has led him to rethink his strategy.

One of the problems for Hekmatyar is that the government's priority in any peace talks is the Taliban, a group which is larger and deadlier. Hekmatyar, as a prize, may simply not be worth the hefty concessions he is demanding, especially since any peace deal with HIG would earn Karzai more animosity than praise from the group's many rivals, who make up a sizeable part of his government, the Afghan armed forces, and the political opposition.

Hekmatyar also faces different generational demands. For older party members who accompanied him from the 1980s through all the phases of the Afghan war, being kept out of the ruling political system yet again was too wearisome to contemplate, especially as the battlefield gave no hope of victory. This is why, says Muhammad Khan, deputy leader of the legal, political HIG party, many chose to "come in from the cold." According to Khan, the party currently has three cabinet ministers and 47 members of the upper and lower houses of parliament. Karzai has also appointed half a dozen "Hezbis" as provincial governors, with more becoming his high-profile advisors and ambassadors. However, younger members of the faction, who make up the bulk of the current HIG foot soldiers and are impressed by Hekmatyar's fiery language against the "Crusaders," believe the jihad must continue until all the foreign forces are out of Afghanistan and an Islamic state is established.

To keep his group intact, Hekmatyar has to keep all of these members happy, both the war-weary old-timers and the battle-hungry youngsters. This means reshaping his vision to include both political engagement in the 2014 presidential election and jihad against the foreign troops. He is trying to simultaneously promote his political aims through militancy and his military aims through politics. This is how last week's bombing and his latest statement (available only in Pashto), made on the 35th anniversary of the communists' coup d'etat, should be understood. In speaking about his new vision, Hekmatyar stated:

"In the case that a limited number of foreign forces stays and the puppet government of Kabul grants them legal immunity, then Hezb-e Islami [opts for] supporting a candidate closer to its policies and relatively better than the others; he would certainly easily be made a winner with an overwhelming majority [with Hezb's support]. In this case, Hezb-e Islami would continue its jihad on the battle field and badly defeat the enemy on the political field." (Author's translation)

With this statement, Hekmatyar made a U-turn, forgetting his previous demand that a full withdrawal of foreign forces was a precondition for accepting the current political order. Now he says there needs to be a drawdown of international forces and elections to be held next year, both events due to happen regardless of HIG's involvement. However, it's worth noting here that he was utterly opposed to the two previous presidential elections, calling them "ridicule[s]" and dramas performed under the wings of "the occupation's fighter aircrafts which aims at rendering a false legitimacy to a puppet government."

To avoid looking like he has blatantly changed his mind, Hekmatyar even started telling a new narrative on the war by now referring to the 2014 withdrawal as the "inevitable defeat of the United States and NATO" and "the imminent victory of the mujahedin."

Hekmatyar has also "threatened" to win an overwhelming majority in the 2015 parliamentary elections in order to gain control of parliament and use its legislative power to expel all remaining foreign forces. In other words, he implies that his military goals could finally be achieved through politics. This mixed vision of completing the "liberation" of Afghanistan through democratic means and boasting of victory while still conducting attacks against the government looks designed to keep the foot soldiers loyal. The violence may also be aimed at getting leverage in negotiations. It is a threat to the government to take HIG and its peace overtures more seriously.

Hekmatyar's explicit approval of, and indeed, his intention to participate in the upcoming election may also be an attempt to retain ownership of the many longstanding associates who have grown weary of war, especially as more and more of them have slipped away from the armed wing to join the political process in Kabul. The latest and probably most important member to do this is Qutbuddin Helal, a former deputy prime minister from the mujahedin government in 1990s, who, until last year, was heading Hekmatyar's negotiation efforts.

According to HIG sources who spoke to this author, Helal has joined the government's reintegration program, allegedly in defiance of Hekmatyar's orders. Helal himself said he had not lost allegiance to Hekmatyar as his amir, but that he was now busy discussing a future political solution to the war with tribal elders and what he called "likeminded" parties. By basing himself in Kabul with such a mission, Helal has set up a new nexus of HIG in the capital, adding to the various other minor "breakaway" groups and heavyweights.  

"Once a Hezbi, always a Hezbi," is a modern Afghan saying. Many Afghans believe that whatever name they operate under, even those Kabul-based Hezbis who are working in the government are loyal and will stay loyal to Hekmatyar to the end of their days. This suggests the "Amir's" apparent intention to enter electoral politics could unite all the various political groups, parties, and independent heavyweights who have their roots in HIG but have become scattered during the leader's almost two decade exile from Afghanistan.

However, any comeback, whether in Hekmatyar's own right -- which seems less likely -- or through a political party which explicitly speaks for him, would not be a smooth occurrence. He has bitter enemies among the former mujahedin, particularly from the Jamiat-e Islami group which, among others, fought a bitter civil war in the mid-1990s. Jamiat, a leading faction in the Northern Alliance, has done well in the post-2001 years, with ministers, governors, members of parliament, and a dominating presence in the Afghan security forces. In an attempt to pre-empt their opposition to Hekmatyar's return to politics, his representatives have met many of their old rivals over the past year, but it is unclear what success they've had.

What does seem clear is that Hekmatyar will only take up the government's invitation to insurgents to participate in next year's election if he can give up violence as a means to an end. For now, however, he seems to believe he can best further his party's interests by playing with both bullets and ballots.

Borhan Osman is a Kabul-based researcher/analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.  This piece was adapted from a longer article he co-authored with Thomas Ruttig. 

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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