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Afghanistan: Peripheral Consolidation

By S. Binodkumar Singh

June 6, 2016

Amidst surge in violence and talks with the Afghan Taliban hitting a roadblock, the Afghan Government signed a draft peace agreement with the Hezb-e-Islami (HeI) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on May 18, 2016. The draft agreement was signed by HeI representatives and High Peace Council (HPC) officials in the residence of Pir (revered religious instructor, usually of Sufi orientation) Syed Ahmad Gilani. HeI has agreed to have no links with anti-Government armed militant groups.

The other salient features of the draft peace agreement prominently include: the Government would offer an official pardon to associates of the HeI militant group and would work to have the group removed from the United Nations blacklist; the group would not join the Government but would be recognized as a political party involved in major political decisions; the agreement gives legal immunity for all past political and military actions by HeI members and mandates the release of all HeI prisoners within three months; and under the agreement, Hekmatyar would have a consultant role on important political and national decisions.

However, a final agreement has not yet been reached. On May 24, 2016, Deputy Spokesman for President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Syed Zafar Hashemi announced that there is no specific timeframe for the conclusion of the peace deal with HeI. He added that a peace process is always complicated and it would be a mistake to confirm a timeframe regarding the final accord.

Significantly, HeI and the Afghan Government remain at odds on issues such as the exit of foreign Forces. The 'acting head' and 'deputy chief' of HeI Mohammad Hakim Hakim on May 30, 2016, insisted that the Government must at least ascertain a schedule for the exit of the foreign soldiers before the deal could finally be settled.

In an apparent breakthrough for the Afghan Peace Process, on March 27, 2016, HeI, the second largest insurgent group in Afghanistan, accepted President Ashraf Ghani's invitation and agreed to join the direct peace talks with the Government. The announcement was made through HeI's official webpage Shahadat, and declared, "Although the Americans have not yet ended their war in Afghanistan and many of the officials in Kabul Government see the peace process as a threat to their powers and privileges, but we are ready to take part in these talks, just to prove to our nation that Hizb-e-Islami wants peace".

Later, on April 5 2016, stepping back from his demands for the complete withdrawal of foreign Forces, HeI chief negotiator Muhammad Amin Karim disclosed that Hekmatyar was no longer demanding that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan. HeI had, in the past, always demanded the complete withdrawal of foreign Forces from Afghanistan.

About 12,813 foreign troopers, including 6,954 US troops are still stationed inside Afghanistan under the Resolute Support Mission. Moreover, on October 15, 2015, US President Barack Obama stated that he would keep 5,500 US troops in Afghanistan into 2017, arguing "Afghan Forces are still not as strong as they need to be... Meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains, particularly in rural areas, and can still launch deadly attacks in cities, including Kabul." There is, consequently, no chance of complete withdrawal of Foreign Forces from Afghan soil in the foreseeable future.

The radical Islamist party, HeI, was formed by its current chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in opposition to Mohammad Daud Khan, who had become President in 1973 after engineering a coup against the last Afghan King, Zahir Shah, with the support of the erstwhile Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Hekmatyar, a radical internationalist Pashtun, recruited profoundly from among Government secular schools and Kabul religious schools. The party drew maximum support from Nuristan, Nangarhar and around Kabul. With the passage of time, dissent grew within the party, and it split as another two cofounders Burhanuddin Rabbani and Mawlawi Mohammed Yunis Khalis established their own factions. Burhanuddin Rabbani became President of Afghanistan on June 28, 1992, and remained in power till September 27, 1996, when the Taliban seized control of Kabul.

In May 1996, Rabbani and Hekmatyar formed a power-sharing Government in which Hekmatyar was made Prime Minister. But, the Rabbani-Hekmatyar regime lasted only a few months before the Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996. Many of the HeI local commanders joined the Taliban. In Pakistan, HeI training camps were taken over by the Taliban and handed over to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Hekmatyar then fled to Iran in 1997 and resided there for almost six years. However, as a result of pressure by the US and the Hamid Karzai administration, on February 10, 2002, all HeI offices were closed in Iran and Hekmatyar was expelled by his hosts. Thereafter, he is believed to have shuttled between hideouts in Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas and northeast Afghanistan, and is estimated to have 1,500-2,000 armed cadres across Afghanistan.

HeI had conducted some widely publicized attacks during the past few years even while negotiations were under way. These included the May 16, 2013, suicide attack in Kabul which destroyed a US armoured vehicle. 14 persons, including two US soldiers, four US civilian contractors and eight Afghan nationals, were killed in the attack. HeI also claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Kabul on February 10, 2014, which killed two US civilians and wounded another two Americans and seven Afghan nationals. In July 2015, Hekmatyar called on his followers to support the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in its fight against the Taliban. Significantly, IS has made some inroads into Afghanistan, particularly in the Nangarhar Province. It is in this context that the present agreement has added significance.

Though many commentators are of the view that this agreement will force the Taliban to come to peace table, such an outcome is most unlikely in the present situation. The killing of the Pakistan-installed head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, near Ahmed Wal in Balochistan, squarely on Pakistani soil, on May 21, 2016, has stalled the already checkered peace process for the time being.

In fact, Taliban representatives have met with the Afghan Government only once, in the intervening night of July 7 and July 8, 2015, in Murree in Pakistan, with an agreement to meet again on August 15 and 16, 2015, in the Qatar capital, Doha. However, the talks quickly collapsed as the Afghan Government on July 29, 2015, disclosed that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban, had died in April 2013 in Pakistan - a fact that both the Pakistani agencies and the Taliban leadership had kept secret, even as they continued to manipulate Mullah Omar's identity, issuing several statements on his behalf. Subsequently, the Taliban split into two factions - one led by Pakistan's nominee, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and another by Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

A bitter succession war ensued within the Taliban, and this did not help the peace process. Pakistan was, however, able to force reconciliation by September 2015, and Mullah Mansoor's authority over both the factions was restored.

On February 16, 2016, Afghanistan's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah called on the Taliban to come to the negotiation table, warning that they could not fulfill their hopes through war. Once again, on March 7, 2016, during a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, Abdullah declared, "The anti-government armed militants are invited to respond positively towards the legitimate calls of the Government of national unity for the revival of peace process."

Nevertheless, the Taliban failed to attend the fifth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, that was held in Pakistan's capital city, Islamabad, on May 18, 2016. The QCG reiterated that violence served no purpose and that peace negotiations remained the only option for a political settlement, and the various QCG countries reaffirmed that they would use their respective leverages and influences to these ends. There was some florid rhetoric about the continued determination with shared commitment to advance the goal of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process, and it was decided that the next QCG meeting will would be convened as mutually agreed.

The first meeting of the QCG was held in Islamabad on January 11, 2016; the second in Kabul on January 18, 2016; the third in Islamabad on February 6, 2016; and the fourth in Kabul on February 23, 2016.

Despite efforts to end the violence in Afghanistan through the reconciliation process, the Taliban announced the launch of summer offensive in Afghanistan, named 'Omari Operations' for the founder and first supreme leader of the group Mullah Mohammad Omar, on April 12, 2016. Since the launch of the summer offensive, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 3276 fatalities in terrorist violence have been recorded across Afghanistan till June 5, 2016; of these, 2923 have been Taliban and other terrorist cadres. The Security Forces (SFs) have lost 161 personnel and 192 civilians have been killed.

The peace agreement between the Afghan Government and HeI is a welcome step, though it presently remains tentative. The Government and some of its international allies seem to hope that it may serve as a possible blueprint for a desired peace accord with the Taliban. Such expectations are based on a poor understanding of the nature of these groups, and Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, on May 14, 2016, openly declared, "The deal with Hezb-e-Islami would have no impact on the overall peace process."

Pakistan continues to support the Taliban against Kabul, and the Taliban have established dominance over vast territories within Afghanistan. There is, at present, little incentive for the Taliban to give all this up to accept any position as a junior partner in the state apparatus in Kabul; and such an outcome would certainly not meet the ambitions of the Taliban's Pakistani handlers. The QCG process is based on contrafactual assumptions and a denial of reality, and is, consequently, still born.

S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review