War Stories

Is Peace at Hand in Afghanistan?

Probably not.

Photo of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Click image to expand.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar 

What to make of the news that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—one of the most vicious of Afghanistan’s militants, a former close associate of Osama Bin Laden, and a high-ranking figure on the U.S. list of “specially designated global terrorists”—has offered a 15-point peace plan to President Hamid Karzai?

On one hand, Hekmatyar’s faction, Hizb-i-Islami (the Islamic Party), is just the sort of insurgency group that U.S. commanders hope to turn against the Taliban and in support of Karzai’s government.

On the other hand, Hekmatyar himself has been so virulently anti-American, so actively opposed to Karzai’s rule (his group attempted to assassinate the president in 2002), and—even by Taliban standards—so bloodthirsty in his methods that the overture must be taken with at least three cups of salt.

On yet another hand (and Afghan politics are so down-the-rabbit-hole complicated that a half-dozen or so hands are needed to canvass the possibilities), if it turns out that Hekmatyar cannot really be flipped—if his overture proves to be nothing but a power grab—then it raises doubts about the prospects for the entire U.S. war strategy.

As far back as October 2008, Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said, in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, “You have to talk to enemies.” In the latter stages of the Iraq war, he noted, “we sat down with some of those who were shooting at us” as “an explicit part of our campaign.” (This led to the “Anbar Awakening” and the alliance between U.S. soldiers and Sunni tribesmen to defeat the common enemy of al-Qaida in Iraq.) The Afghanistan war would be settled only through a similar process. “This is how you end these kinds of conflicts,” Petraeus said. There is “no alternative to reconciliation.”

However, as he and others have since stressed, there are enemies and enemies. The main targets of co-optation in Afghanistan are the tribal fighters who—in the words of David Kilcullen, a top counterinsurgency adviser—”are motivated by local interests, or by desire for monetary gain, or by a desire for revenge because of something that we’ve done, rather than because they support the political agenda of the Taliban.” Kilcullen estimates that 90 percent of so-called Taliban fall into these apolitical categories—and can therefore be won over.

The enemies who probably can’t be swayed—who can only be ousted, killed, or captured (as many recently have been)—are the al-Qaida warriors and hard-core Taliban fundamentalists, like Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and … well, a short time ago one might have said Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

In this respect, though, Hekmatyar enjoys an ambiguous, or at least uncertain, status, which is why his peace ventures haven’t been dismissed out of hand.

His 15-point plan, reported in the press on Wednesday, marks the first formal peace offering from any major insurgency group. But Hekmatyar’s deputies have been talking informally with Afghan and U.S. officials for nearly a year.

Hekmatyar first emerged as possibly the most radical of the Islamist parties that made up the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s. For several years, he was a favorite among the CIA agents who were funneling them arms and other aid. After the Soviets were ousted, he served as Afghanistan’s prime minister twice, both times briefly, but wound up on the wrong side of an intensely violent power struggle—in which his forces inflicted enormous damage on Kabul, killing many civilians. When the Taliban took over, they ousted him from Kabul, and he went into exile in Iran (which kicked him out in 2002 for criticizing Tehran’s support of the Northern Alliance guerrillas who, along with U.S. forces, toppled the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes).

The ins and outs of his subsequent betrayals and allegiances form a long and mazelike saga (for details, see here and here), but the point is that he has long had a rocky relationship with the Taliban—and with their sponsors in Pakistan’s intelligence service.

U.S. intelligence analysts and officers on the ground are working overtime to unravel this tangled web and to figure out just who Hekmatyar is this time around. Is he allied with, or alienated from, the Taliban and al-Qaida? Could he serve as a useful wedge between those two ultimate enemies and other potentially pliable insurgency groups? Can he be trusted to hold some high-level post in Karzai’s government (almost certainly one of his aims) without conniving to topple the regime and rip up the Afghan Constitution (a deep and justifiable concern)?

The prospects are enticing enough to keep talks going, but no more than that for now.

There are several reasons for remaining leery of Hekmatyar, besides his record of terrorism, savage human-rights violations, and duplicity.

First, many of his peace plan’s 15 points are nonstarters, among them the complete departure of U.S. troops by the end of the year, followed by the dissolution of the Afghan parliament and the holding of new presidential elections.

Second, it’s not clear whether an alliance with Hizb-i-Islami, even if sincerely motivated, would do much to split the other insurgencies or strengthen Karzai’s government. Hekmatyar’s support lies mainly in the north and northeast, whereas the fiercest fighting is taking place in the south and southeast. Any conciliatory display on his part may have little or no effect elsewhere.

Finally, and most important, now may not be the time for seriously “talking with enemies.” Gen. Petraeus’ alliance with erstwhile Sunni insurgents in western Iraq, it’s worth noting, was formed at the initiative of the Sunnis, whose tribal leaders calculated that the Arab intruders of al-Qaida in Iraq were a bigger threat than the American invaders of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s also worth noting that, though this alliance preceded the “surge” of U.S. troops, it couldn’t have succeeded without the surge.

Afghanistan differs from Iraq in many ways, but among them are the conditions for fruitful alliances. First, the Taliban are almost all native Afghans; al-Qaida has almost no presence these days (though, if the Taliban regained power, this situation would almost certainly change).

Second, the U.S. surge in Afghanistan is only beginning. The 90 percent of Taliban fighters who David Kilcullen says are susceptible to co-optation won’t switch unless they think our side has a good chance of winning.

Third, as for militia leaders, they are all nasty, though perhaps not quite as nasty as Hekmatyar has been in the past. If he can’t be reconciled, it may be—though just may be—a sign that the others will be hard to push there as well.

The first phase of the Obama administration’s surge—Operation Moshtarak, which began last month in southern Helmand province—was designed, in good part, as a sort of politico-military PR campaign: to show friends, foes, and fence-sitting Afghans that the coalition of U.S., NATO, and Afghan army forces can rout a concentration of Taliban fighters and follow up by bringing in a slew of government services.

The results so far are mixed. The Taliban fighters were routed, but some say they come back and rule the neighborhoods at night; and the government services have been slow in coming. The operation has been going on for barely a month; it’s way too soon to render a verdict. But the advance word was that success would be visible quickly. And the next step of the surge—repeating the effort in Kandahar—will be a steeper climb.

One hope surrounding Hekmatyar’s peace plan is that a deal can be struck, the Taliban can be splintered, Karzai’s hold can be secured, and we can get out of this place without too much more bloodshed and with the claim of a mission accomplished.

But the evidence from all sides suggests this war will go on for a while.

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