Daily Times, 9 March 2010
The defection of a large number of commanders and fighters of the Hizb-i-Islami to the Karzai government is a significant development and the first concrete success of Kabul’s extension of an olive branch to the militants. Hizb-i-Islami’s faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the second largest insurgent group in Afghanistan, which has been carrying out militant actions in alliance with the Taliban against the Karzai government since it first assumed office in 2002. The infighting between the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, which on Sunday killed 79 in Baghlan, one of the northern provinces of Afghanistan, indicates not only the Taliban’s ire against their erstwhile ally, but also their spread to the north, where they have gained considerable strength to be able to carry out a major attack. According to the BBC, the fighting, which took place in Jangal Bagh area, seems to have been ignited by attempts to gain control over a village and its taxation.
Although this is a major success for the Karzai government, Hekmatyar has always been a controversial figure and has been accused of opportunism and mercenary motives over the years. Of particular mention are his attacks on fellow mujahideen during the anti-Soviet resistance. During the Taliban regime established in 1996, he was left out in the cold and fled to Iran in 1997 after losing the confidence of his erstwhile supporter Pakistan as an effective leader. International pressure caused Iran to expel Hekmatyar and close all offices of the Hizb-i-Islami on their territory in early 2002 for his anti-Karzai government activities. After several attempts to find a place in the scheme of things in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami emerged as a fierce resistance group in 2008 that claimed responsibility for several attacks on coalition forces as well as government targets. When President Hamid Karzai offered peace with the insurgents, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar welcomed it on the condition that foreign troops should leave Afghan soil. This statement could be read as more than a mere token of support for the peace initiative of the Karzai government. Given Hekmatyar’s past as an unreliable ally, it showed an inclination to once again switch sides for personal gain. It can be argued that he was in negotiations with the Karzai government and waiting for the right moment to announce his acceptance of the peace offer. The move seems to have caused serious rifts with the Taliban who had rejected Karzai’s offer outright. The Taliban have not only inflicted heavy damage on the Hizb-i-Islami in Sunday’s battle (initial reports suggested 40 Hizb casualties, with 20 Taliban and 19 civilians dead), they have encircled their stronghold, forcing them to openly declare allegiance to the Karzai government, which is now on its toes to rescue the embattled fighters.
Given the opportunist nature of the Hizb-i-Islami chief, the effectiveness of fighters under his command is questionable, but this switching of sides is significant for political reasons. Despite representing a relatively weaker section of the insurgency, Hizb-i-Islami’s joining hands with the Afghan government is the first major success of Karzai’s policy of reaching out to the militants. It also indicates an element of desperation among the Taliban to this imminent departure of Hizb-i-Islami from the resistance alliance. The reasons for this response to the open door policy notwithstanding, the possibility of opening up reconciliation with at least one section of the insurgency can only be welcomed.