Kabul, Afghanistan: On September, 29 2016, the Afghan government and Hezb-i Islami lead by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an insurgent group that gained notoriety during the resistance against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and the subsequent civil war in the 1990s, signed a peace accord – the first and so far, only peace accord with an insurgent group since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Although the peace agreement with Hezb-i Islami is slowly implemented and raises different questions, it is in no danger of falling apart. However, the display of this accord as a potential blueprint for a peace deal with the Taliban, by far the largest insurgent group in Afghanistan, and, accordingly, an end to the decade long conflicts in Afghanistan is founded on exaggerated hopes rather than reality. The peace accord with Hezb-i Islami essentially stipulates that Hezb-i Islami is obligated to accept the Afghan constitution, declare an “eternal ceasefire”, stop all military activities, “dismantle its military structures”, and cut any ties with terrorist organizations and other illegal armed groups. In return, the Afghan government has to take steps to lift international sanctions against Hezb-i Islami and its members, release its imprisoned members and prepare the repatriation of refugees affiliated with the group (who are mainly located in a camp near the Pakistani city of Peshawar) as well as include Hezb-i Islami in the political system (for the text of the agreement in Dari see here). So far nearly none of this has been implemented. Given Hezb-i Islami’s “almost total absence on the battlefield” (with the last confirmed attack dating back to February 2014) the declaration of an “eternal ceasefire” has a symbolic rather than a real impact. And while the United Nations Security Council on February 3, 2017 lifted sanctions against Hezb-i Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, he and the party are, as of this month, still blacklisted by individual nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, with no information, whether and when they will be removed from such separate sanction lists. Other obligations, particularly the release of Hezb-i Islami prisoners and the return of refugees and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Afghanistan, are, according to local media reports from early February 2017, in preparation and imminent, but have not been realized yet. In fact, the release of prisoners appears to be an especially delicate issue: Hezb-i Islami seemingly requested amnesty for around 2,500 alleged imprisoned members, whereas the government already cut down this list to only 488 names (with a further reduction possible).Furthermore, many imprisoned Hezb-i Islami members were reportedly also convicted on criminal charges, raising questions about their release. It is also not yet apparent, how exactly Hezb-i Islami will be included in the current, already complicated system of internal Afghan politics. In addition to possible struggles with other political groups, many members of a strong political wing of Hezb-i Islami, which had to officially denounce ties to the armed wing of the party, were already serving in government positions long before the peace accord and continue to do so, and it has to bee seen, whether such members will cooperate or vie for government positions with Hezb-i Islami members coming in from the cold. In addition to the implementation of such comparatively clearer commitments, it also has to be noted that article 4 of the accord puzzlingly states a disagreement rather than an agreement on the question of international military forces in Afghanistan, declaring that the government and Hezb-i Islami have their own opinions regarding the withdrawal of international military forces and that Hezb-i Islami – recognizing its commitment under the accord – wants a reasonable schedule for the withdrawal of such foreign forces. While one might think that such issues could have the potential to threaten the peace accord, official statements by Hezb-i Islami dispel such worries, reaffirming the groups commitment to the agreement. This was also confirmed by two high-ranking military commanders of Hezb-i Islami in exclusive interviews with Diplomatic Courier in January 2017. Both commanders – Qari Mohammad Yousuf Baghlani, a member of Hezb-i Islami’s military commission, and Mohammad Mirwais, Hezb-i Islami’s overall commander for Afghanistan’s northern provinces – expressed some discontent due to the slow implementation, but staunchly stated that this poses no danger to the accord in itself. Baghlani even reassured that Hezb-i Islami would – even in case problems with the implementation of the accord should continue – not take up arms again. With respect to prisoners, Baghlani asserted that the main problem is that many Hezb-i Islami members, due to different reasons, amongst them the fear of repercussions, had concealed their true allegiance when imprisoned and sometimes even posed as Taliban. This has also been claimed by other Hezb-i Islami representatives, but could not be independently verified. Regarding the open question of international military forces on Afghan soil, both commanders didn’t give clear answers, but rather said that “if the government fulfills its obligation under the peace accord, the government and Hezb-i Islami will soon bring security to Afghanistan and international military forces won’t be necessary anymore”. Even though not explicitly commenting on it, neither commander contested the notion that a withdrawal of international military forces won’t happen any time soon. This apparently also shows that the military wing of Hezb-i Islami is, at least for the foreseeable future, pragmatically tolerating the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan. Yet another open question with unclear answer is the disarming of Hezb-i Islami. While Baghlani said that Hezb-i Islami is only waiting for the Afghan government’s plan in this regard, Mirwais indicated that “in certain places with no government presence, Hezb-i Islami groups should remain armed to defend such areas”. Be that as it may, frequent assertions that the peace accord with Hezb-i Islami could serve as a template for a peace agreement with the Taliban are highly questionable. First of all, the official Taliban statements consistently and clearly reject any peace negotiations under the current circumstances, especially the presence of international military forces which the Taliban see as an illegal occupation (see for example here and here). While this might to some extent be propaganda and some Taliban might be open to negotiations, the renown independent Afghanistan Analysts Network correctly pointed out that – contrary to Hezb-i Islami, which always was much more politically focused and interested in gaining power within the current system – the Taliban clearly prioritize the armed struggle (as acknowledged by a United Nations report from December 2016), therefore suggesting that the drawing of parallels between the two groups is “artifical”. This does not necessarily mean that the Taliban are purely driven by ideology and immune to a political settlement; however, it seems that vast parts of the Taliban, if not the movement as a whole, are not interested in what the Afghan state is willing or, for that matter, able to offer them – i.e. political inclusion in a modern democratic system. Hence, while the peace accord with Hezb-i Islami is withstanding manifold problems it has only a limited, if any, impact on the battlefield and most likely won’t have any significant effect on the Taliban, who are continuing and even intensifying their fight against the government. About the author: Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He covers a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. He can be followed @franzjmarty on Twitter.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.