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Feb 17, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

In Afghanistan, a Rare Step Toward Peace

In Afghanistan, a Rare Step Toward Peace
(FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Though his followers will not fully disarm, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar will stay committed to his landmark truce with Kabul.
  • Negotiating from a position of strength, meanwhile, the Taliban will drive a harder bargain with the Afghan government.
  • Pakistan will try to reinvigorate its ties with Hekmatyar as another means of gaining influence in Afghanistan.

A peace initiative launched last year by the Afghan government recently passed a rare milestone, even as the wider Taliban-led insurgency continues across much of the country. On Feb. 3, the U.N. Security Council lifted sanctions on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord and former prime minister known as "The Butcher of Kabul" for his role in the Afghan civil war that presaged the rise of the Taliban in 1994. As a result, Hekmatyar is expected to end his 20-year exile from public life and return to Kabul by March. His homecoming is controversial among many Afghans, but the peace deal should give Kabul cause for optimism — and may shed light on a path toward peace with the Taliban.

A Symbolic Victory

The lifting of sanctions gives substance to the peace deal that the government and the small militant outfit led by Hekmatyar, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), signed in September 2016. The group agreed to lay down its weapons in exchange for amnesty and a place in Afghan politics. As the first major truce in the 15-year war between Kabul and the various insurgencies fighting to re-establish a theocracy in Afghanistan, the pact has considerable symbolic importance, even if its impact on the battlefield will be diminished by the HIG's small size.

That is why both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah — political rivals in an uneasy power-sharing agreement — put aside their differences to push the deal forward, despite complicating their own political futures to do so. Lifting sanctions paves the way for Hekmatyar's re-entry into Afghan politics just ahead of national elections in 2019. Since Ghani and Abdullah's power-sharing deal is already fragile, the potential entrance of a powerful personality such as Hekmatyar into an election that will likely be decided largely along ethnic lines could simply add a new layer of complexity. (Hekmatyar, like Ghani, is Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, whereas Abdullah identifies as Tajik, a minority.)

Meanwhile, the fact that an Afghan-led process produced the peace deal gives it added weight. Last year, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (comprising the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan) failed to achieve a breakthrough in negotiations with the Taliban, casting further doubt on the efficacy of using international mediation as a catalyst for peace. Kabul's success in forging a landmark deal — even if it is not with the Taliban — is a shot of confidence in its ability to manage a complicated negotiation process. Notably, the Afghan High Peace Council also recently reached out to the Taliban to restart talks without outside involvement.

The newest peace deal, moreover, highlights the fact that for all their mutual suspicions, the United States and Russia have overlapping interests in Afghanistan. On Feb. 9, U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, accused Russia of legitimizing and supporting the Taliban during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Nevertheless, both countries consented to lifting the U.N. Security Council's sanctions on Hekmatyar, demonstrating some willingness to cooperate with each other.

A Roadmap for Peace With the Taliban?

Perhaps most important, the deal may also give the Afghan government a model to use in reeling in a much larger foe: the Taliban. After all, the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to end until a power-sharing agreement can be forged between the government and the Taliban, and the deal with the HIG highlights other measures Kabul can use to nudge the Taliban toward an accord. As it did with the HIG's leaders, Kabul will likely feel compelled to request that the United Nations lift sanctions on key Taliban figures. Discussions will also focus on granting them amnesty.

But any peace template will have to account for the major differences between the two groups as well, particularly in size. The HIG has a marginal battlefield presence, with no more than a few thousand fighters. The Taliban, by contrast, boast at least 50,000 fighters and control about 10 percent of Afghanistan; they are also contesting another 30 percent of the country. This disparity has evidently shaped the calculations of each group's leaders; while Hekmatyar sees greater potential in politics, Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada believes he has more to gain from continuing the fight.

Since the peace deal was signed in September, the HIG and Ghani have urged the Taliban to follow suit. But Taliban fighters are unlikely to lay down their weapons anytime soon. The Taliban are currently in a position of strength, and their battle against government forces will only intensify in the coming months as the group launches its annual spring offensive.

Why Hekmatyar Will Stay the Course

Despite the noteworthy progress Kabul has made in securing peace with the HIG, it's unrealistic to expect a peace deal in a theater of war as complex as Afghanistan to go off without a hitch. As it stands, the implementation of the peace deal will face at least two roadblocks. The first stems from the group's ability to revive its attacks. According to a report in early February, Hekmatyar's spokesman clarified that though the group had agreed to formally dissolve its military wing, it is unwilling to disarm its remaining fighters. Yet Kabul continues to demand that all HIG fighters disarm, even though some will certainly keep refusing. Second, Abdullah has said he will not release the approximately 2,600 HIG fighters in prison — one of the HIG's primary demands — without due process.

Even faced with these potential pitfalls, however, Hekmatyar has an incentive to ensure that the peace deal holds. At nearly 70 years old and having spent the past two decades in hiding, Hekmatyar appears to believe that he can be more effective as a politician than as an insurgency leader — particularly one whose group now pales in size to the Taliban. Hekmatyar also senses an opportunity to curry foreign support for his aims. On Feb. 8, for example, the HIG's political wing, Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, traveled to Turkey for a five-day visit — reportedly at the invitation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is expected to visit Kabul for Hekmatyar's return.

More notable, however, are Hekmatyar's deep ties with Pakistan. During the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979-89, Pakistan armed Hekmatyar's fighters, allotting his party the greatest share of funds flowing in from Saudi Arabia and the United States. After the war ended and Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah's rule collapsed in 1992, Kabul descended into a paroxysm of violence as rival warlords began vying for territory. Islamabad initially backed Hekmatyar in hopes that he would form a stable, pro-Pakistan government. But once Hekmatyar's group began to falter, Pakistan redirected its support to the Taliban.

Today, Pakistan's ambitions in Afghanistan remain the same: to stabilize the country, to prevent archrival India from gaining influence there, and to work with Kabul to build trade and energy routes into Central Asia. Consequently, Pakistan is keen to reinvigorate its relationship with Hekmatyar. In fact, China likely sought approval from Pakistan — its "all-weather" friend and partner in the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor — before voting to lift sanctions on the Afghan warlord.  

Hekmatyar's heyday was as a mujahideen commander in the Soviet-Afghan War. But as he attempts to build a second life in politics, his re-emergence will serve as a test case for Kabul's peacemaking skills — and as an opportunity to gauge how the government and the Afghan people will respond to the reabsorption of a notorious warlord. How the government fares in these tasks could reveal new ways of moving toward a more comprehensive peace as the country's insurgency rages on. 

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