The peace agreement reached between the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar speaks volumes about the current situation in the country. Hekmatyar is not the type of leader a legitimate government may like to make peace with. The “butcher of Kabul” faces charges of killing thousands of Afghans during the U.S.-backed anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s and the civil war in the early 1990s. He fell out with his American patrons during the civil war involving different mujahideen groups, and turned against the U.S.-led coalition troops after their 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. But even after being declared a “global terrorist” by the U.S. in 2003, and his militia, the Hezb-i-Islami, being placed on the UN list of foreign terrorist organisations, Hekmatyar, now believed to be living in Pakistan, continued to fight the Afghan government and the coalition troops. Over the years his influence has dwindled, but he still commands a sizeable group of rebel soldiers who can continue to irritate Kabul. But why should the Afghan government negotiate a peace deal with a weakened warlord who faces charges of war crimes? Under the agreement, Hekmatyar will be made part of all government decisions and actions. Besides, the Hezb-i-Islami fighters will be integrated into the Afghan armed forces and Mr. Ghani will request the UN to remove the terrorist tag.
One plausible explanation is that the Afghan government is desperate to find a breakthrough in the 15-year-old civil war. Mr. Ghani’s previous attempts to reach out to the Taliban have come to nothing. Despite the recent setbacks to their leadership, the Taliban now control more territories than ever since they were ousted from power in 2001. They have demonstrated the capability to strike any location they choose to. By reaching a peace deal with Hekmatyar, Mr. Ghani is sending the message to the Taliban that peace between warlords and the government is not impossible, provided the former are ready to shun violence and work within the Afghan Constitution. The President may also be hoping that if Hekmatyar rallies the various political and militant factions of the Hezb-i-Islami behind the government, it would strengthen the regime’s position in the long term. But it is a gambit. The accord is unlikely to have any immediate impact on security as the Taliban are still at war. The deal could be counterproductive politically as well because of Hekmatyar’s record — having him associated with the government could dent its legitimacy. But for Mr. Ghani, presiding over a regime grappling with infighting, incompetence, lack of resources and massive security challenges, there are not too many easy choices that are without risk.