KARACHI - With the Afghan resistance poised for a do-or-die spring offensive against occupying forces in the country, already torn by instability, details are emerging of a breakthrough agreement that could see the implementation of a truce, at least in the troubled east of the country.
Steady behind-the-scenes efforts on the part of Washington, Islamabad and Kabul to find a political solution to Afghanistan's woes appear to have finally borne some fruit. Asia Times Online has learned that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) - the engine of the resistance in the east of the country - has provisionally agreed to call a ceasefire in resistance fighting in return for his party being allowed to contest September's general elections.
Such a move, though, is hinged on the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) setting a date for the withdrawal of the more than 13,000 US-led forces in the country.
Asia Times Online reported in February that Hekmatyar had been offered a truce by the US and a role in the future political mainstream, but the veteran fighter did not respond. (Afghanistan: Now it's all-out war, Feb 24)
News of a possible breakthrough could not have come at a better time for Afghanistan. Donor nations on Thursday concluded a meeting in Berlin with pledges of US$8 billion for Afghanistan over the next three years.
According to quarters in Pakistan close to Hekmatyar, a delegation comprising the top HIA leadership, including Khalid Farooqui, Dr Qasim Hamat, Dr Jan Mohammed Hamkar and Engineer Tariq will visit Kabul at the invitation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to start a new round of dialogue. On the government side, representatives of the ruling factions will include former president Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf and Qasim Fahim, the defense minister and first vice president.
The agenda of the talks will center on a ceasefire and the HIA's role in Afghan politics. The HIA has agreed to establish political offices in Kabul pending agreement on a ceasefire, which, the HIA stresses, is entirely subject to a deadline being set for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Pakistan's initial plan to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001 was to cultivate "moderate" Taliban, flushing out the hardline Taliban leadership, with the consent of local Afghan commanders. This third tier of Taliban leadership, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, would be acceptable to the international community. However, these efforts were aborted at an early stage as few Taliban were prepared to betray 39-year-old Mullah Omar's leadership.
Subsequently, Pakistan initiated another move to persuade even lower-level Taliban leaders to establish their own parties, such as the Jamiat-i-Khudamul Koran (or Furqan) and the Jaishul Muslemeen. But this backfired as the Jamiat-i-Khudamul Koran - which was heavily funded by both the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - ditched Islamabad and joined the Taliban's resistance movement against the US. Other parties, such as the Jaishul Muslemeen, could not elevate themselves beyond issuing statements to the local media.
Meanwhile, the ISI began to actively promote the HIA as a major force as a safeguard for Islamabad's interests in Afghanistan as it felt it was losing ground to the Northern Alliance, which India backed. The ISI, using the contacts it forged in the Afghan resistance to the Soviets in the 1980s, also helped reestablish local mujahideen commanders to counter the influence of the Northern Alliance. However, Pakistan's real motive was lost as many HIA commanders joined the resistance movement against the US.
However, both the ISI and the CIA retained their old connections with HIA leaders based in Peshawar in Pakistan. Additional pressure was exerted by the US when HIA spokesperson, political affairs leader in Islamabad and son-in-law of Hekmatyar, Dr Ghairat Bahair, was apprehended by the ISI and passed on to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Background and significance
Elections had been scheduled for Afghanistan in June, but these have been put back to September. The United Nations had imposed the condition that the voters' list should contain at least 10 million names, but to date hardly 15 percent of this enrollment target has been achieved. A vast belt of Pashtun regions in the east, including Kandahar, Kunhar, Nooristan, Nagarhar and Oruzgan, are inaccessible for the registration of voters due to the law and order situation.
The Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan was the largest fighting faction during the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. At the same time, the HIA had vast political influence on Afghan campuses, in Islamic seminaries and in Afghan urban centers as it was also the most organized political force in the country.
But with the success of the Taliban, the HIA became the prime victim. Hekmatyar, who was prime minister in 1996 when the Taliban seized power, went into exile in Iran. Many HIA commanders surrendered to the Taliban, while those political leaders with Uzbek or Tajik origins either fled, joined the Northern Alliance or became politically neutral and chose to operate businesses in Pakistan and European countries such as Cyprus, France and England.
At present, interestingly, the Afghan bureaucracy in Kabul, Jalalabad, Khost and Kandahar is largely run by former HIA officials, even though their loyalties are viewed with some suspicion.
A part of Hekmatyar's strategy has been to restore communication with his former mujahideen friends from the war against the Soviets who are now a part of the US-sponsored Karzai administration. These include Ismail Khan from Herat, Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum and Sayyaf.
Hekmatyar has regrouped several thousand of his old fighters under a number of loyal commanders and he figures prominently in eastern Afghanistan in the fight against US forces in Afghanistan.
The million-dollar question, though, is whether Hekmatyar will retain his present clout if he betrays Mullah Omar and the Afghan resistance?
A possible answer to this can be drawn from the past.
The Jamiat-i-Islami of Rabbani and the late Ahmed Shah Masoud and Hekmatyar's HIA are ideologically the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Afghanistan. However, they fell out over political differences that resulted in a bloody battle for the takeover of Kabul in the early 1990s. But the arch rivals immediately shook hands when the Taliban first emerged and began, without bloodshed, to take over major Afghan cities. Hekmatyar accepted the position of prime minister, and Rabbani became president in what turned out to be a doomed marriage of convenience to stave off the Taliban threat.
This political compromise for the first time caused serious differences within the HIA. Hekmatyar held a meeting with all his major commanders and party leaders in Peshawar, and tried to justify his alliance with Masoud. When he failed to convince his party, he tried to use his last card - his personal charisma gained as a fearsome mujahideen and leader of men. He placed his turban (a symbol of respect in Afghan tribal society) on the ground and asked those party leaders who did not want to support him to walk over his turban (in other words, over his honor). Most of the party members stood up and walked over the turban. It was at this point that Hekmatyar realized that he had lost ground against the newly emerging Taliban student militia, and he announced that he would not obstruct the way of the Taliban, and chose exile in Tehran.
Hekmatyar's withdrawal from the resistance at this stage would certainly be a setback in eastern areas such as Kunhar, and many of the plans of the Afghan resistance would face delays. But there is the possibility that - like before - most of his commanders would not follow him and would chose to melt with the Taliban instead.
Hekmatyar is not a man afraid to switch sides to satisfy his political ambitions, and ever since the Taliban took over Kabul he has been looking for a role in the country.
However, in the present global scenario, where the Afghan resistance has a global perspective as the International Islamic Front has special plans to use the resistance as a world-wide rallying call for anti-US activity, Hekmatyar will have to weigh his options with a lot of care as any hasty decision could leave him completely in the wilderness with no role to play on either side.
A brief curriculum vitae of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
April 3, 2004
- During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), received billions of dollars in military assistance from funds the CIA channeled through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
- After the fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar signed the Islamabad Accords, which nominally made him prime minister. However, the accords fell apart and he aligned himself with Abdul Rashid Dostum. Together they laid siege to Kabul, fighting President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masoud.
- A few months before the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, Rabani, Hekmatyar and Masoud finally formed a power-sharing government in which Hekmatyar was prime minister. Hekmatyar fled the Taliban, exiling himself to Iran where he continued to lead the HIA.
- On September 18, 2001, Hekmatyar sided with Osama Bin Laden and soon warned Pakistan for siding with the United States. After the US invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban, Hekmatyar (still operating in Iran) rejected the UN-brokered accord of December 5, 2001, saying the pact amounted to a US-imposed government for Afghanistan.
- In February 10, 2002, all the offices of HIA were closed in Iran and Hekmatyar was expelled. He resurfaced in Afghanistan as a leader of the anti-US resistance.
- Through the ISI, Hekmatyar in 2004 is offered a US-brokered deal by which he would be allowed to take part in elections in return for a truce and a pull-out of US-allied troops.