21 April 2004
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Although the level of insurgency against foreign troops and the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai continues unabated in Afghanistan, crucial political developments are unfolding between the Hezb-i-Islami, Afghanistan (HIA) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Kabul administration. As the HIA is active in much of the resistance, especially in the east of the country, it is viewed as a crucial component in any peace initiatives.
Afghan diplomatic circles in Karachi confirm that the lines of communication between the HIA and the Karzai administration have been restored, and now both sides are exchanging views on how to extricate Afghanistan from its present chaos. The HIA is not banned in Afghanistan, and many of its members are positioning themselves to play a role in elections scheduled for September, assuming they go ahead after already having been postponed from June.
For almost a year, the HIA has tried to draw a line between its political wing and its military commanders, with Dr Qutubuddin Hilal heading the former. Hilal has actively forged contacts with all political players in Afghanistan, to such an extent that the administration has been forced to turn a blind eye to the HIA's dual policy under which its military wing continues its resistance.
The latest meetings between HIA officials and Karzai are taking place on the anniversary of a HIA meeting on April 19 last year in Peshawar (Pakistan) in which Hilal addressed a gathering in the Samshato Afghan refugee camp and called for jihad against the US presence in Afghanistan. Now, the same Hilal has emerged as a moderate voice calling for a political solution. At the same time, Hekmatyar's fighters are active in Paktia, Khost, Logar and Kunhar provinces, where they are attempting to stir tribal chiefs into a revolt similar to the one taking place in Iraq.
Faced with an active and primed resistance in the country, as well as restive warlords (notably Ismail Khan in Herat in the west and General Abdul Rashid Dostum in Faryab province in the north) the Karzai administration desperately needs a stepping stone to cross its river of problems. In conjunction with the US, Karzai has worked on a number of schemes, including recruitment of "moderate Taliban" and even the Taliban without their leader Mullah Omar, to constitute a broad-based and acceptable government that would fill the political vacuum in Afghanistan. The latest venture now embraces the HIA's political leadership.
This initiative is separate from other attempts to bring Hekmatyar himself into the political arena (see Asia Times Online of Apr 3 Afghanistan: Hekmatyar changes color again).
Understandably, both the US and the Kabul administration realize the complexity of dealing with the HIA's factions, as the wily Hekmatyar, who was briefly premier in Kabul in 1996 before being ousted by the Taliban, could simply be using his political wing to pave the way for his return once the HIA establishes a credible power base to negotiate with other power factors in Afghanistan.
Over the past few months, Karzai has inducted three former HIA members and commanders into the federal cabinet: Haji Mangal Hussain, Qazi Amin Waqad and Waheedullah Sabawoon.
The latter two have not been too well received. They were two of the most powerful leaders of the HIA before they broke ranks with Hekmatyar after the emergence of Taliban in the early 1990s. Sabawoon was once part of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban.
However, after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Sabawoon called a meeting of about 150 "Islamic-minded" commanders in Kabul to determine the role of Islamic forces in the post-Taliban period. The meeting was raided, though, and Sabawoon and all the commanders were arrested. They remained in detention for some time, but were released when the Karzai administration felt the need for strong ethnic Pashtun connections to build its power base against the rising popularity of the resistance movement in southern Afghanistan. Sabawoon, by regrouping all his former comrades of the HIA, has quickly emerged as a powerful force - some even say second only to Afghan defense minister Qasim Fahim.
The induction of Qazi Amin Waqad as federal minister for justice has revived Islamist strength in the process of law-making, with the new minister having established a powerful lobby with minister of education Yunus Qanooni, the chief of the Ittehad-i-Islami, Professor Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, and head of the Jamiat-i-Islami, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani ( a former president). This fresh interaction of men, who all have or had connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, within the Afghan government establishes a powerful connection between the resistance groups led by Hekmatyar and the anti-US Islamists who are directly or indirectly part of the Kabul government.
That Karzai has a battle on his hands in the countryside is well established. Now a battle looms within the heart of his government.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd)