The Hizb-i Islami Deal: Dawn of Reconciliation or Sunset of NUG? | Antonio Giustozzi
How the deal came about
Although the on-going negotiations between the Afghan authorities and the leadership of the illegal wing of Hizb-i Islami were only announced to the public in March 2016, in reality President Ghani was already in touch with Hekmatyar during the electoral campaign of 2014. Sources in Hekmatyar’s party hint that Ghani’s team sought Hekmatyar’s support for Ghani’s campaign in exchange for a promise to seriously discuss reconciliation if Ghani was to be elected president. Hekmatyar in fact had been seeking reconciliation with Kabul for several years, but never managed to finalise a deal with President Karzai. Within Hizb-i Islami now there is some bitterness against Karzai, whom they accuse of having deliberately delayed reconciliation before 2014. Karzai is accused of having seen Hekmatyar as a potential rival for the leadership of Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. Sources closer to Karzai on the other hand accuse Hekmatyar of having made excessive demands in terms of appointments to positions of power.
Whatever the case, in contrast to Karzai, the embattled Ghani had good reasons for following through on his promise to seriously discuss reconciliation with Hizb-i Islami: he needed a success story given the lacklustre performance of the NUG and the deteriorating security situation in the country; he needed potential new allies (once he decided to run for a second term) and could see some advantage in the potential emergence of another large party to counter-balance the power of Jamiat-i Islami. The prospect of reconciling Hizb-i Islami was seen positively by at least two of Ghani’s international allies: United States and Saudi Arabia.
By the time negotiations were made public, they were already fairly advanced. Hekmatyar’s June 2016 ‘withdrawal’ from negotiations was probably more theatre than anything else. Although it took several more months to sign the deal and then implement it, the problem was not between Ghani and Hekmatyar, but was related to the opposition or the doubts of some components of the NUG to the deal, particularly Jamiat-i Islami that fought against Hekmatyar’s group in the 1980s and 1990s.
The deal behind the curtain
The agreement formally signed between Hizb-i Islami and the Afghan authorities in September 2016 was widely circulated. Its content appears rather unremarkable given Hekmatyar’s notoriety. There is not much in it to discuss: the removal of sanctions on Hekmatyar, full amnesty for all its members, the acceptance of the Constitution by the party, the dissolution of the party’s armed organisation and its recognition as a legal organisation fully entitled to participate in the legal process. The text importantly does not mention any power sharing with Hizb-i Islami.
Although critics have commented that the agreement gave a lot to Hizb-i Islami, in fact one wonders reading the agreement why Hekmatyar signed it. One explanation is that Hizb-i Islami had been facing financial difficulties for years and was struggling to maintain its organisation. Indeed the contribution of Hizb-i Islami to the overall insurgency in Afghanistan had been declining for years and by 2016 was negligible. While financial difficulties are certainly a factor in the reconciliation, Hizbi sources say that the official agreement was supported by another, undisclosed agreement according to which Hizb-i Islami would support Ghani in the forthcoming presidential elections, that it would receive appointments to positions of power (ministers, governors, ambassadors…) and that it would receive substantial financial support from a foreign third party (Saudi Arabia). The undisclosed agreement, if true, would explain why the deal actually took place and why it became so controversial.
More than reconciliation
Although the exact content of the undisclosed agreement, if it really exists, is unknown, it is a commonly held suspicion in Afghanistan that the official agreement is not the whole story. There have been clear signs that Hekmatyar has taken President Ghani’s side during his June-July diatribe with Jamiat-i Islami and some other components of the NUG. This suggests that a political alliance between Ghani and Hekmatyar is really in the cards. Rumours of substantial Saudi funding to accrue to Hizb-i Islami in the near future are also widespread.
Parties and groups like Jamiat-i Islami fear that what is going on is much more than reconciliation. They fear the emergence of a new coalition centered around Ghani in the forthcoming elections, incorporating a reunified Hizb-i Islami (the legal Arghandiwal wing and the formerly illegal Hekmatyar wing), which could well become the dominant political force in the country. The fact that Hizb-i Islami’s armed groups have not been disbanded or disarmed also raises fears among Hekmatyar’s rivals of an intent to turn the party’s armed wing into yet another semi-legal militia, competing with those of Jamiat-I Islami, Junbesh-I Milli and other groups. Indeed Hekmatyar hinted that he might deploy his men in the street against demonstrators affiliated to Jamiat and other groups in June.
Underpinning the fears of Jamiat-i Islami and other groups are the already cited rumours of the Saudi authorities undersigning the reconciliation agreement and being ready to bankroll Hizb-i Islami’s transformation into a Hamas-style political machine. The talks are of a large madrasa and of an Islamic University with branches in the provinces to be built by the Saudis for Hekmatyar’s party, as well as of the Saudis picking up the party’s bills. While external funding for Afghanistan’s political parties is nothing new, the rumours and admissions made by party members in off-the-record interviews suggest that a qualitative change might be about to occur, if Saudi funding were to flow at rates never seen before. Whether or not this will really happen remains to be seen, but it would make sense. Hekmatyar has been adopting a strongly anti-Iranian and even anti-Shi’a rhetoric in recent years, which might be a sign of him courting Saudi funding. The Saudi in all likelihood would like to develop political proxies in Afghanistan to counter widespread Iranian influence and have been diplomatically active in sponsoring the negotiations between Hekmatyar and Kabul.
The Hizb-i Islami cadres contacted were all confident that the party would score high in the parliamentary elections (initially due in 2015 and postponed to 2018 for now). If that was to look increasingly likely in the coming months, the fears of the rival parties would of course only strengthen.
When the negotiations over Hekmatyar reconciliation deal were going on, there was much talk about the potential reconciliation spin offs that might occur. Indeed within the Taliban’s ranks there was interest for the deal, although it was also assumed that the implementation would be problematic. Sources within the Afghan government indicate that a small delegation from the Taliban’s Rasool Shura arrived in Kabul in the summer of 2016 to discuss possible reconciliation, but eventually left having made little progress. Several groups of former Hizb-i Islami Taliban in eastern Afghanistan also watched the negotiations with Hekmatyar carefully, and re-established communication channels with Hekmatyar himself. They hoped to be able to exploit the reconciliation deal in order to obtain some kind of luxury reconciliation for themselves, at a time when they were running short of funds due to changing alignments within the Taliban and between some Taliban components and the Taliban’s international sponsors. However, since the autumn of 2016 most of these groups seem to have lost interest in this matter and have drifted in different directions. Until the Hekmatyar deal is implemented full steam, with a display of wealth and status capable of impressing people who have been fighting for long years, from the point of view of the latter the deal is not tested yet. The current security situation, with the control of the Afghan government being slowly but steadily eroded by the Taliban, also provides little encouragement for prospective reconciliations. Political instability in Kabul is another factor discouraging Taliban interested in reconciliation from coming forward.
Likely that the peak of interest among insurgents for Hekmatyar-style reconciliation agreements is now well past. If the alleged Saudi funding for Hizb-i Islami started flowing in significant amounts, some interest might be revived, but there is certainly a sense of missed opportunities for the Afghan authorities, largely in part due to their internal divisions.
The implementation of the reconciliation deal between Hekmatyar and the Kabul authorities has been having and will have a negligible military impact, in terms of weakening the insurgency. Even at the peak of its military strength, around 2011-13, Hizb-i Islami had limited resources and little interest for waging an intensive jihad against anybody; about half of its energy was dissipated fighting competing insurgents like the Taliban. The only serious impact would be if Hizb-i Islami forces were turned into pro-government militias, fighting the Taliban with greater resources and in coordination with the Afghan security forces. But if that happen political instability would surely increase, and the risk of clashes with militias of rival parties would be high.
So far Ghani and Hekmatyar have shown determination to go ahead with the deal, despite its controversial character and Hekmatyar’s failure to fully meet the requirements for implementation. The fact that Hekmatyar took to Kabul hundreds of armed bodyguards, instead of the 40 that he should have, might be justified with concerns about his personal security, but certainly it also seems like a provocation towards his rivals, who despite being in some cases well entrenched in Kabul do not normally have that many armed men roaming around the capital. Hekmatyar’s hostile rhetoric towards Jamiat-i Islami also reinforces the feeling that he might be trying to rock the Afghan political boat and create political tension, perhaps in order to accelerate the demise of the NUG. This is not in President Ghani’s interest, but Hekmatyar seems to think that now Ghani is trapped within the deal, and would sacrifice too much political capital if he opted out because of Hekmatyar’s brinkmanship. Hekmatyar’s attitude creates political uncertainty in a context where there is already a lot of potential instability. It was probably to be expected that the renegotiation of the political settlement in Kabul and its extension to a new major player would shake the rusty boat of Afghan politics.