Ashraf Ghani’s gamble with ‘butcher of Kabul’
For the Afghan president, a deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a political win, but it may not bring political stability.
Last week, the Afghan government signed a peace deal with the notorious warlord and former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which has raised hopes and concerns. The deal brings hope because it is the first time the leader of a major insurgent group has agreed to lay down arms, embrace the country’s constitution and enter mainstream politics.
But Hekmatyar’s return could unleash a cascade of political, military and social problems that could be more destructive than constructive to the country’s future.
Nicknamed the “Butcher of Kabul”, Hekmatyar has a controversial history. Over the past three decades, he has hatched at least two failed coup plots with Communist leaders.
In his quest for power during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, he formed alliances with almost all competing factional leaders – even his fiercest enemies, such as Uzbek leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari.
He reneged on nearly all alliances, repeatedly living up to his reputation for untrustworthiness and deceitfulness.
Over the past 30 years, he has been on the payroll of intelligence agencies of various countries.
Hekmatyar is a fiercely ambitious figure and a merciless pursuer of power.
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In his fight for the presidency during the Afghan civil war, he shelled Kabul with thousands of rockets, killing and injuring tens of thousands of residents.
He is also infamous for fanning ethnic tensions to undermine his opponents and gain power. If his track record is any indication, Hekmatyar will bring his ruthlessness and thirst for power with him in this new peace deal.
The current political climate in Kabul is volatile, with insecurity continuing to threaten much of the country. Infighting within the National Unity Government (NUG), formed in 2014, has further compounded this volatility and contributed to a new height in ethnic tensions.
The central government’s weakness has created a power void that the country’s warlords have been quick to fill. Hekmatyar’s return to Afghanistan could further complicate the political climate and offset a new wave of political, ethnic and factional tensions.
If Hekmatyar chooses to continue to use ethnicity to mobilise power and undermine his opponents, as he did during the civil war, he will further aggravate ethnic tensions. Hekmatyar is the leader of Hezb-i-Islami, a mainly Pashtun hardline faction.
Pakistan hasn't officially responded to this peace deal, but their silence in no way implies indifference.
Since the 1980s, Hezb-i-Islami has been a rival of Jamaat-e-Islami, a mainly Tajik faction. While political rivalries are a positive element of a democracy, both these groups are armed, and Hekmatyar’s return has the potential to spark not only political, but violent conflict between them.
Hekmatyar has not proved that he has come to terms with modern Afghanistan, where freedom of expression, freedom of the press, women’s rights and peaceful political competition demand respect.
President Ashraf Ghani’s motivation to bring Hekmatyar into the peace process is mainly political.
In the power-sharing agreement that led to the formation of the NUG, Ghani lacks the necessary power base to keep his opponent Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and his camp in check.
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Hekmatyar’s return could tilt power in favour of Ghani and counterbalance Abdullah, who derives his power from Hekmatyar’s rival faction, Jamaat-e-Islami. Hekmatyar’s influence among the eastern Ghilzai Pashtuns, a branch of Pashtun ethnic group to which Ghani belongs, will prove useful for Ghani in terms of standing up to the pressures of Abdullah and the Jamaat faction.
Hekmatyar’s return could also help Ghani in counterbalancing the power and influence of former president Hamid Karzai, who left office in 2014 and is impatiently waiting to come back to power. Many believe Afghanistan’s deteriorated national political and security environment has been caused by disunity in the NUG.
Since Hekmatyar’s political history stretches back much further than Karzai’s, if a political transition or national consultation such as the Loya Jirga is needed to avert further deterioration, Hekmatyar could play a significant role in preventing Karzai from returning to power.
What has remained puzzling is Pakistan’s interests in facilitating this agreement. Pakistan has been a long-time benefactor and protector of Hekmatyar – it currently shelters him and his family. Pakistan hasn’t officially responded to this peace deal, but their silence in no way implies indifference.
If Hekmatyar stays true to his past and does not accept Afghanistan's current democracy or honour the peace deal, he will become a liability to the Ghani administration.
Hekmatyar would not make a major political decision without Pakistan’s blessing. With relations between Kabul and Islamabad at an all-time low and the NUG facing the most political and security challenges since its establishment in 2014, it remains unclear why Pakistan would endorse such a deal without a direct benefit.
There are two possibilities. Pakistan might use Hekmatyar to undermine India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan sees close ties between India and Afghanistan as a threat to its national security.
Since the beginning of the resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s, Hekmatyar was unique among mujahideen groups to explicitly threaten to fuel insurgency in Kashmir.
The first possibility is that Hekmatyar’s background as fiercely anti-Indian might have convinced Islamabad that it could use him to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan.
The second possibility is based on Pakistan’s ability to exert power over a weak Kabul regime. Pakistan may believe Hekmatyar’s return will simply complicate an already volatile political environment in Afghanistan, increasing Islamabad’s influence in Kabul.
For Ghani, bringing in Hekmatyar is a political win, but it remains to be seen whether his return will contribute to or hurt political stability.
If Hekmatyar stays true to his past and does not accept Afghanistan’s current democracy or honour the peace deal, he will become a liability to the Ghani administration, and poison the political environment rather than improve it, proving a much graver danger from within to modern day pro-democracy Afghanistan than he ever had from outside the political system.
Hekmatyar has yet to prove himself. In trusting one of Afghanistan’s most ruthless warlords, Ghani has made a gamble in which both national security and political stability are at stake.
Najib Sharifi is a political analyst and a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness, a Kabul-based think-tank.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.