Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) is busy preparing to welcome its leader engineer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in line with the peace deal signed with the two-headed National Unity Government (NUG) in September. The UN Security Council lifted sanctions on Hekmatyar on February 4, which was one of the key conditions in the 25-point reconciliation accord.
The accord put a stop on HIA’s armed resistance. As a first step, HIA has opened an office in Kabul and selected a compound where Hekamtyar will live and run his political office. Head of its political committee, Ghairat Baheer, has confided to the author that the party will take part in the coming parliamentary elections expected later this year.
Hekmatyar’s appearance in Kabul was expected earlier; however, the HIA officials insist that he has decided to delay it until the government releases some of Hizb prisoners as pledged as part of the deal.
On their part, officials argue that NUG is bound to implement the agreement and look into legal aspects of parts of the deal including the release of prisoners.
Some critics in Afghanistan and outside discredit the peace deal on the plea that HIA was no more a strong military force like Taliban and that it would not have any major impact on the security situation. No doubt serious security challenges would persist unless the Taliban join the peace process; however, the HIA-Govt. peace deal could not be ignored as the war-weary Afghans are likely to honor a deal if an armed group lays down arms and joins peaceful and political struggle.
HIA-NUG peace deal would certainly have a moral pressure on Taliban to review their approach and join the intra-Afghan dialogue. It is the only way to secure a political solution to the complex Afghan problem.
Taliban should address the widespread belief in Afghanistan that the continuation of war provides an excuse for the U.S. and its NATO allies to keep troops in the war-shattered country. Taliban leadership should realize the fact that the war has now become “afghanized,” taking the lives of Afghans and mostly innocent civilians as revealed by the UN 2016 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict released on February 6.
In 2016, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 11,418 civilian casualties, an overall three per cent increase compared to the previous record-high documented in 2015. Much of the harm to civilians in 2016 resulted from disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks as well as attacks directed at civilians by Anti-Government Elements, the UNAMA report said. The Taliban issued a routine denial but majority in Afghanistan remain sceptical about their denial.
The role of the HIA could emerge as an influential political force if Hekmatyar succeeds in wooing the deflected HIA leaders. Hekmatyar’s first priority would be bringing back the dissidents to make HIA a strong political force to find a reasonable position in the present system. Hizb officials believe that the estranged leaders, who had once fought against the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Jihad (1979-89) under Hekmatyar’s leadership, will have no option but to rejoin the party.
Hekmatyar will have to dispel the impression that he may side with the government to fight Taliban as it could further increase violence in the country. But Taliban, who also consider HIA as its rival and had been involved in fighting against its loyalists in Kunar, Kunduz and Maidan Wardak, must not find another enemy. In December the Taliban attacked on the house of Helmand MP Mir Wali’s house in Kabul, killing at least six people including the son of another MP Obaidullah Barikzai. Both MPs belong to HIA and the attack prompted strong condemnation by Hekmatyar. If the Taliban target HIA people, there would be a backlash.
The best option for HIA would be to focus on political role and to strengthen political parties. As Afghanistan gradually heads to a parliamentary system with the office of a Prime Minister instead of the current Chief Executive, the country needs a system-based on political parties instead of personalities. Senior HIA leaders have hinted at taking part in the long-due parliamentary elections that will be a positive change in Afghanistan.
The HIA could challenge its traditional rival Jamiat-e-Islami, which is currently considered as the only strong political party. There are several other parties of former Mujahideen, nationalist and communist leaders, however, they do not have strong support among people.
HIA-NUG deal has also strengthened President Ghani’s stance that his government has a will to pursue peace process if armed groups come to the negotiation table. Despite this positive development, Taliban will remain Ghani’s major challenge and he must press the new US administration to focus on political process instead of looking for more foreign troops to fight insurgents.
The author Tahir Khan is a journalist for The Express Tribune and a distinguished member of CRSS Pak-Afghan Track 1.5/II initiative, ‘Beyond Boundaries’.