Challenges for Afghan president after deal with Hekmatyar
After the recent peace deal between the Afghan government and exiled warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Kabul should now implement the long awaited political and electoral reforms to integrate militant groups as well as ethnic minorities and replace the politics of violence with the politics of the ballot box.
The peace deal is a symbolic victory for President Ashraf Ghani, who is still struggling to revive peace talks with the much more powerful Taliban.
The deal comes after months of negotiations with Hezb-i-Islami over the final draft agreement. On September 11, Hekmatyar’s son said on Facebook the agreement has been reached.
According to the agreement, the government will offer Hekmatyar legal immunity, on similar lines offered in 2007 to warlords accused of war crimes in “all past political and military proceedings”, as well as release Hezb-i-Islami prisoners.
The agreement, which is believed to have had the support of Pakistan and China (Hekmatyar has been designated a global terrorist by the US and is blacklisted by the UN), may have a positive impact in reducing violence and creating the necessary conditions for reforms.
The deal comes at a time when Ghani has largely failed to introduce political and electoral reforms that he had pledged to, according to an agreement brokered by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and signed in 2014.
The failure to implement the agreement is depriving the Afghan government of its main source of authority and legitimacy and pushing ethnic minorities up the wall. This may lead to a huge increase in ethnic polarization (specific attacks against ethnic minorities have occurred in Afghanistan recently) in the country and damage the country’s ethnic harmony.
The political impasse has led to an escalating feud between Ghani and Abdullah, rising tensions among the country’s long-warring ethnic groups and factions, and mounting calls from a vocal opposition for the dissolution of the government.
That has raised the spectre of a protracted power battle that could give way to a coup d’état or parallel government by key national players, or rekindle the kind of ethnic and factional warfare not seen there since the civil war of the 1990s. What has added fuel to the ethnic fire are the mounting attacks against minorities that make them feel marginalized. A July attack on a Kabul rally which killed more than 80 members of the mainly Shia Hazara community is a case in point.
Taliban do not take responsibility for such attacks and instead blame them on Islamic State amid growing fear of the latter’s spread in Afghanistan. Renewal of ethnic rivalries boosts the power of regional and ethnic strongmen like Abdul Rashid Dostum who scorn Kabul’s efforts to impose its control on their local power bases and complain of being shut out by Ghani.
The brewing ethnic tension erupted recently over the reburial of Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik bandit who briefly reigned as king in 1929. Although eventually resolved, the dispute saw Tajik supporters exchanging fire with those backing Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek with his own large militia who objected to the proposed burial site, saying it had connections with his own people’s history.
Shrill rhetoric from different ethnic groups in the wake of the clash has been fed into social media and local television stations, which have been awash with angry comments.
How such incidents will be judged by foreign donors when they meet in Brussels in October to approve support for Afghanistan remains unclear, although they have said they would continue to provide the billions of dollars needed over the coming years.
During the past two years of Ghani’s rule, no serious efforts have been made to implement the 2014 agreement in letter and spirit. While Ghani has largely focused on strengthening his own tenure by creating a friendly Pashtun administration, Washington, consistent with its past policies, has acted complacently by failing to honor its role as the broker of the agreement and acquiescing to Ghani’s fear-mongering strategy, disguised as reforms.
The failure to implement the agreement has activated political actors in the country wanting to send Ghani home. This includes his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who recently accused the president of being unwilling to listen to his ministers and unfit to hold office.
However, despite diminished public support and political trust, the implementation of the political agreement remains the best course of action to inject a badly needed political pulse to a dying entity.