Hard Choices for Peace in Afghanistan
On September 29th, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) of Afghanistan, signed a peace agreement with the Afghan government, by prerecorded video, from an undisclosed location. In the nineteen-eighties, Hezb-e-Islami was the most extreme of the seven mujahideen parties recognized by Pakistan, and Hekmatyar’s unblinking black eyes were framed by a black turban and full black beard. Three decades later, Hekmatyar, now sixty-nine, has a different look. On the video, he wore the same black turban, but his beard has turned white and his heavy-lidded eyes peered out from behind bookish wire-rimmed glasses.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China armed Hezb-e-Islami and the other mujahideen parties through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (I.S.I.). The Pakistanis gave Hekmatyar the largest share of weapons, which they justified to the C.I.A. with the claim that Hekmatyar “killed more Russians.”
That was good enough for the Reagan Administration. Washington was certain that the Soviets would never leave Afghanistan. Developing a strategy for the country’s future would be a distraction from the task of inflicting pain on Moscow. By the time the Soviets withdrew their last troops, in February, 1989, the damage had been done. Billions of dollars had built up Hekmatyar and other extremist groups.
When, in April, 1992, the collapse of the Soviet Union pulled down the formerly Communist regime of President Mohammad Najibullah, Hekmatyar intended to take power, but he was slow off the mark. By the time his troops entered Kabul from the south, his rival Ahmad Shah Massoud had already moved in from the north. Starting in June, 1992, Hekmatyar repeatedly shelled the city. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that fifty thousand people, almost all noncombatants, died from Hekmatyar’s rockets and the battles that raged among the multiple militias in Kabul.
In 1995, a new group called the Islamic Movement of Taliban swept out of southern Afghanistan and captured the base where Hekmatyar launched his rockets. Pakistan shifted its support to the Taliban, which accomplished what Hekmatyar never could: capturing Kabul, in September, 1996.
Seeking new allies, Hekmatyar moved to Iran, where he refused to join either the Taliban or the main resistance to the Taliban, led by Massoud. He opposed the American-led intervention in Afghanistan, as well as the new government formed at the Bonn Conference, in December, 2001, which was also dominated by Massoud’s followers. (The rival resistance leader, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda, on September 9, 2001, seems to have outmaneuvered Hekmatyar in death as in life.)
When President George W. Bush placed Iran on his “axis of evil,” in January, 2002, and charged the country with harboring the terrorist Hekmatyar, Tehran seemed only too glad to release him to Afghanistan. He tried to organize armed resistance, but eventually made his way back to Peshawar, where his old friends found a place for him. His forces claimed responsibility for a few spectacular operations—killing ten French soldiers in the Sarobi District of Afghanistan, in August, 2008, and fifteen people, including two American soldiers, in Kabul, in May, 2013—but he was never a significant factor in the war. Perhaps Pakistan now thinks he will be more useful inside than outside of Kabul.
The agreement that Hekmatyar signed last month will have little or no effect on the level of violence in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar’s party remains marginal to the military effort led by the Taliban. But it shows that a settlement between the Afghan government and a designated “terrorist” group is possible. It could even provide a model for the negotiations that the Afghan Taliban, the government, and the U.S. have reportedly resumed in Qatar. Hekmatyar agreed to all the “red lines” for reconciliation set by the U.S. and the Afghan government: dissolving armed groups and observing a permanent ceasefire, respecting the Afghan constitution, and breaking ties with terrorist organizations. Hekmatyar, whose party reportedly threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, also agreed “that all people, both men and women, enjoy equal rights and responsibilities before the law without discrimination or concession.”
In return, Hekmatyar sought the same terms that the Taliban has demanded from a peace agreement, including guarantees that party members may live safely in Afghanistan, the integration of fighters into Afghanistan’s defense and security forces, the lifting of international sanctions, and the release of prisoners. Rather than making extremist demands about social policy or political structure, Hekmatyar accepted the constitution, while emphasizing that “religious principles and guidelines would be the main pillar of all laws and government policies, as the second and third articles of the country’s constitution emphasize that the holy religion of Islam is the official religion of the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and that in Afghanistan no law may contradict the beliefs and provisions of the holy religion of Islam.”
The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan was among the most difficult issues. Like the Taliban, Hekmatyar demanded their departure before any agreement could be made with the government. That demand was the source of most of the deadlocks and delays. Finally, the agreement affirmed the principle that “both parties support withdrawal of foreign military forces based on agreements that safeguard national sovereignty and the national interest,” but without a timeline for the departure of those troops.
The hardest part of the agreement for many Afghans to accept is the guarantee of “immunity from prosecution for past military and political acts.” This was probably a personally difficult issue for President Ashraf Ghani, who knew several of the people who were assassinated on Hekmatyar’s orders. These included his friend and colleague Syed Bahauddin Majrooh, who was the dean of Kabul University’s Faculty of Literature and, after fleeing Soviet-occupied Kabul, became the director of the Afghan Information Centre in Peshawar. On February 11, 1988, the eve of Majrooh’s sixtieth birthday, two assassins gunned him down in his home. Reports that Hekmatyar had ordered the murder spread quickly. Years later, the Afghanistan Justice Project (A.J.P.) learned details of a meeting where Hekmatyar and his associates planned Majrooh’s death.
Why would Hekmatyar have had Majrooh killed? In December, 1987, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had told President Reagan that he would withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan regardless of conditions on the ground. Diplomats started to develop plans for an interim government to take charge in Kabul after the troops left. They often referred to a survey of Afghan refugees that Majrooh had conducted earlier that year, which showed that seventy per cent of the refugees preferred a government led by the former king, Zahir Shah, to one led by any of the jihadi leaders. Majrooh’s killing, many believe, was a response to that survey and a warning to supporters of Zahir Shah.
There is also another possibility. Majrooh’s unfinished masterpiece, “Ego Monster”(“Izhda-i Khudi”), is an epic in poetry and rhymed prose, recounting the observations and reflections of an unnamed “midnight voyager” as he wanders through a world much like Majrooh’s. The voyager observes and confronts the monster of oppression in its manifold guises. One night, I was once told, Majrooh and Hekmatyar were both guests at a diplomatic reception in Peshawar. At one point, they came face to face. Hekmatyar asked him, “What is the Ego Monster? ” Majrooh answered, “The Ego Monster is you.”
On the tenth anniversary of Majrooh’s death, Ghani, then a senior social scientist at the World Bank, and his daughter Miriam translated a chapter from “Ego Monster,” entitled “End of a Sojourn in the Abode of Refugees.” In that passage, dated June 22, 1984, “the voyager saw a number of unknown men approach the tents of the refugees.” They had “unkempt beards reaching to their navels that, like black masks, covered their faces. Their eyes were like two holes in those masks that emitted flames of anger, envy, hatred, and enmity.” After the men provoke a mob to stone a couple to death, falsely accusing them of immorality, the voyager buries the bodies, and addresses the refugees: “You welcomed the corrupt envoys of terror with open arms and allowed them to become your leaders. You accepted devilish dark beings into your midst and permitted them to further darken your ruined hearts, so that the monster can once again reside there and consume you.”
When he made the agreement with Hekmatyar, Ghani must have asked himself if he was allowing the “monster” to “once again reside there and consume you.” Yet, more than thirty years earlier, Majrooh had also described how violence and exile were tearing at the social fabric of Afghanistan: “Day by day, the refugees were falling into the abyss of anger and rage. Caught by the webs of greed and envy, they were increasingly treading the path of hatred and revulsion.” The American-led intervention seemed to bring a brief respite, but its focus was on killing terrorists rather than making peace, and some of the means it used prompted Afghans to seek refuge with the Taliban. The Afghan people are now enduring their fifth cycle of war within four decades. Ghani and, it seems, most Afghans, have decided to make hard, even painful choices to try to create peace.
Hezb-e-Islami has promised to disarm, and its progress will be monitored. It has accepted the constitution and will participate in any program of transitional justice and reconciliation. Today, as the Taliban advance on multiple fronts and the government sometimes seems paralyzed by division, it is hard to focus on that distant point when Afghanistan may be able to reckon with its past and debate how to balance the claims of retributive justice with the society’s need for peace. Despite the compromises contained in any negotiated document, the agreement with Hekmatyar provides a model for others that might bring that day closer.
This article was originally published by the New Yorker on October 18, 2016