The UN Security Council has lifted its sanctions against Gulbedin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-e-Islami on the request of the Afghan government.
The request followed a peace deal between the Afghan warlord and the government in September 2016. The deal offered legal immunity to Hekmatyar for past offences that had earned him the UN sobriquet ‘global terrorist’ and which was accompanied by accusations against him of war crimes. The let off sparked outrage from human rights groups arguing Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation and return would compound the culture of impunity in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar was accused of killing thousands through indiscriminate rocketing of Kabul during his siege of the capital in the 1992-96 intra-Mujahideen civil war. The only condition for Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation and re-entry into mainstream politics was that his group stop fighting.
The US and other governments have praised the accord between the Hizb-e-Islami and President Ashraf Ghani’s government as a step towards peace and reconciliation in the long suffering war torn country. The UN Security Council has stated that as a result of Hekmatyar and the Hizb-e-Islami’s names being taken off the black list, the sanctions imposed years ago such as an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo would no longer apply. Amongst the members of the UN Security Council, only Russia opposed the lifting of the sanctions, with France overcoming its initial hesitation because of Hizb-e-Islami’s role in an ambush north-east of Kabul in August 2008 that cost the lives of 10 French soldiers.
The decision opens the door to Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul (possibly via Jalalabad) after two decades of exile in Iran and Pakistan. His party is already gearing up, with the Afghan government’s help and facilitation, to rebrand itself as a mainstream political party wedded to a peaceful entry and presence in the Afghan political landscape.
The hope that the process of the protracted negotiations between the Afghan government and Gulbedin Hekmatyar that led to the peace deal last year may serve as an example to other rebel groups, particularly the Taliban, to bid farewell to arms and come in from the cold, however, remains a tall task.
Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation needs to be seen in context. Having earned a fearful reputation as one of the most ruthless warlords of the Mujahideen struggle against Soviet occupation, he was well known in those years not only as the blue-eyed boy of the Pakistani military establishment and the ISI but also as a cruel killer of more rival Mujahideen than the enemy. When the Dr Najibullah regime fell to the Mujahideen in 1992 after the Soviets had withdrawn in 1989, the situation soon degenerated into an intense power struggle and civil war amongst the Mujahideen groups.
In an abortive effort at peace, a Mujahideen coalition was announced with Hekmatyar as prime minister. However, the appointee never took office, opting instead to lay siege to Kabul, which was under the control of Ahmed Shah Mahsoud’s Northern Alliance. During the siege, Hekmatyar ruthlessly reduced the capital to rubble by incessant rocketing, in the process killing thousands of its residents. The carnage only ended when the Taliban loomed at the gates of Kabul, forcing Hekmatyar to beat a hasty retreat.
The subsequent years in exile in Iran and Pakistan saw the Hizb-e-Islami weakened to the point where it virtually ceased to be a factor on the battlefield. Arguably, it was the closure of his military option that persuaded Hekmatyar, finally, to accept the peace deal last year. Can a similar outcome be expected in the case of a resurgent Taliban advancing on various fronts after the withdrawal of the bulk of US and foreign troops? Not, the logic of Hekmatyar’s ‘conversion’ suggests, as long as the Taliban feel they are on a roll on the battlefield.
To alter that dynamic requires Pakistan to use its influence to nudge the Taliban towards the negotiating table. The general perception is that despite lip service to the idea, Islamabad so far has failed to deliver on this score. Afghanistan’s war, one of the longest in modern history, seems destined to continue for the foreseeable future therefore, with its concomitant bloodletting and misery for the Afghan people and its destabilising fallout in the region.