The South Asia Channel

A party with many faces

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the U.S. and international community has never known quite what to make of the former mujahideen party Hizb-e Islami (HIG).  Is it really two distinct entities?  Is the registered political organization which split from the militant wing in 2004 and whose members occupy some of the ...

Casey Garret Johnson/Author Photo
Casey Garret Johnson/Author Photo

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the U.S. and international community has never known quite what to make of the former mujahideen party Hizb-e Islami (HIG).  Is it really two distinct entities?  Is the registered political organization which split from the militant wing in 2004 and whose members occupy some of the most powerful cabinet posts in the Karzai government really autonomous from the insurgent group claiming responsibility for the deadliest attacks in Kabul in the last two years?  The one pledging allegiance to the party’s founding father, Pakistani-based uber-warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, perhaps the most widely reviled man in a country with no shortage of reviled men?

Our continued befuddlement was highlighted in a recent article by the New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg.  In it, an advisor to Gen. John Allen, a former commander of the International Security Assistance Force, concludes that the political party had "a certain degree of autonomy from the militant wing" and was not quite operating like "Sinn Fein and the I.R.A."  However, Rosenberg also cites an Afghan official who invoked the Northern Ireland example to make the exact opposite point, explaining that HIG "has a political face and a military face, like Sinn Fein and the I.R.A."

Understanding the real and perceived links between the legitimate political party and the Pakistani-based militant group is especially important given the role that the former may play in the upcoming elections and future reconciliation talks, and our diminishing capacity to target, either militarily or diplomatically, the latter.  

"It didn’t matter who your father was"

HIG is rooted in the Muslim Youth Organization, an Islamist student group founded at Kabul University in the late 1960s to counter the larger leftist movements that would seize control of the state in a bloody coup a decade later.  In the mid-1970s, the Muslim Youth split into two wings: a moderate faction led by Professor Burhanunddin Rabbani, the man who would twice serve as President of Afghanistan before his assassination in 2011, and a radical group led by an engineering student named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

HIG earned a reputation throughout the 1980s as the most organized and ideologically driven of the various mujahideen parties.  HIG’s Islamist ideology borrowed heavily from the Muslim Brotherhood but, like most things in Afghanistan, the nature of the party owes a great deal to the more personal fact that Hekmatyar was born into a land-poor family from an inconsequential Pashtun tribe and was thus held outside traditional power structures. 

HIG recruited across ethnic lines and unlike factions reliant upon traditional networks of tribal elders or religious figures for recruitment and leadership, HIG was based upon a centralized party system — a system more closely related to those of the Communist parties it waged war against during the 1980s than to the Taliban insurgency with which it is often lumped today.

As one former HIG mujahideen told me in Kandahar in 2012: "When you joined Hizb-e Islami you became part of a party — it didn’t matter who your father was or what you did, everyone was given an ID card and was on equal footing."  This aging mujahid went on to explain that party loyalty was so fierce that HIG members from his village in Helmand had buried their ID cards during the Taliban regime to avoid persecution "but they dug them up when the regime fell. They dug them up because once you are a member of Hizb-e Islami there is this feeling that you never stop being one."

Hizb-e Islami in ‘14

The legacy of HIG’s composition and structure — that is, ethnically and tribally diverse mid-level bureaucrats and other educated individuals otherwise excluded from traditional power structures participating in a fairly meritocratic system grounded in party rather than personality politics — is that today, Hizb-e Islami Afghanistan (HIA), as the licensed political party is called, is one of the most well-organized and represented parties in the nation.

Though reliable numbers are difficult to come by, after four and a half years spent conducting research on sub-national governance in eastern and southern Afghanistan, I estimate that in Pashtun areas HIA is second only to a strong network of former Communist party members in the number of provincial and district government positions it holds.  Not the type of posts that attract international attention, but those which are crucial to actually running the country and which will be instrumental in organizing voters in the run up to the 2014 presidential election.

At the national level, HIA has claimed it controls 30 to 40 percent of government ministries.  While this is probably both an overstatement of its power and an oversimplification of how power is divided in Kabul, the fact remains that three of the most influential men in Afghanistan, Minster of Education Farooq Wardak, Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Daudzai, and presidential Chief of Staff Karim Khurram, are all long-time HIA party members and important allies of President Karzai. 

Among these three, the individual to watch in the coming months is Farooq Wardak.  Though the presidential race is wide open given that none of the possible contenders have declared their candidacy and formal registration is not set to begin until mid-September, elders I spoke with in Karzai’s political heartland of Uruzgan Province claim the President had informally endorsed Wardak as his successor.  A Pashtun from the province of the same name, Wardak may also have unofficial support from Pakistan, support which could impact regional security and any future reconciliation talks.  However, he is also seen by some inside Afghanistan as an ethnically polarizing figure.

Pragmatic Party Loyalists

In trying to decipher the exact links and loyalties between Hekmatyar and legitimate party leaders like Wardak, it is important to keep a few things in mind.

First, HIG and the Taliban have never gotten along.  When the Taliban swept to power in 1994, they specifically cut former HIG commanders — even the most hardline Islamists among them — out of the power hierarchy.  From what they knew of the HIG party structure, the Taliban never believed that HIG commanders would fully pledge allegiance to the movement’s emir, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The take away here is not that any contemporary cooperation between Taliban and HIG insurgencies is at best pragmatic (this is by now boilerplate analysis of the two groups), but that while hardline Taliban remain loyal to Mullah Omar as a divinely ordained leader, HIA partisans, violent or not, are loyal foremost to the party and not Hekmatyar.  (The irony is that HIA is one of the few political parties in Afghanistan that has consistently functioned as such, in contrast to the loose tribal and economic patronage networks we have come to associate with Afghan politics.)

So, while Hekmatyar still wields power as the head of one faction of HIG, his power is limited by the nature of the party itself.  Thus, the idea that stability will somehow flow by either eliminating him or cutting him into the political fold misses the point.  

Second, when you look more closely at areas in Afghanistan with an active HIG insurgency, you see that the individuals leading these groups are not necessarily seeking the overthrow of the government, but are usually protecting their territory, often from encroaching out-of-area Afghan Taliban fighters who say, in effect, "either you oppose the government or we will come into your terri
tory and do it for you."

In essence, the competition is not between HIG and the state, but between HIG and the Taliban for control of areas in which the state has yet to establish a definitive writ.  It is a reality that is difficult to understand because competition often looks like collusion.

In the end, HIG does have a political and military face.  However, the correct way to engage the militant wing is not by targeting Hekmatyar and hoping for some grand bargain, but by continuing to include its legitimate political party in the government with the understanding that while HIG and the Taliban regime may have been incompatible, this does not mean the party-based political Islam of HIG is somehow at odds with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

In fact, the upcoming presidential elections, rather than the fitful reconciliation talks, seem to be doing more to bring HIG militant leaders "in from the cold."  As Borhan Osman of the Afghanistan Analysts Network recently noted, one of Hekmatyar’s top deputies, Qutbuddin Helal, has relocated to Kabul and tapped into the provincial HIA network in advance of the 2014 presidential election.  From a larger policy standpoint, this is another example of an emerging position among pragmatic Afghanistan analysts — that the route to stability leads first through the 2014 election and a successful transfer of national power, with any meaningful reconciliation talks with insurgent groups to follow.

Casey Garret Johnson served as a political analyst in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012, conducting research on tribes, local politics, and the insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan for The Liaison Office, a private Afghan research organization.  During 2010, he was a governance adviser in central Kandahar Province for the United States Agency for International Development, working in conjunction with American military forces.  The views expressed in this essay are his own.

Casey Garret Johnson is a researcher and an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.

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