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February 27, 2009

Peeling the Faustian Orange
Posted by Patrick Barry

Till this point, discussions of peeling away elements of what is commonly known as the Taliban have been hypothetical up until this point, but if this story from Al-Jazeera English is accurate, we're getting close to testing that proposition.  Juan Cole has links and analysis below:

Aljazeera English gives an exclusive report on the British role behind the scenes in kickstarting negotiations between Gulbadin Hikmatyar of the Hizb-i Islami and the Karzai government. Apparently the hope is that Hikmatyar would go into exile in Saudi Arabia for a while and then ultimately receive amnesty and return to Afghanistan.

If true, this is a very interesting development, one that highlights both the advantages and significant drawbacks of negotiating with the insurgency.  In terms of advantages, there are a couple.  First, Hekmatyar's history of shifting allegiances makes him a likely candidate for co-option. Anand Gopal has several good pieces that discuss Hekmatyar's serpentine evolution from Mujaheddin warrior, to scorned exile, and back to powerful insurgent leader, all of which point to a clear opportunistic bent. 

More significantly, Hekmatyar is not some insurgent middle-manager.  As founder of Hizb-e-Islami, he commands one of the most formidable armed-groups currently operating with Afghanistan.  Were the government to forge an agreement with Hekmatyar, it would likely break off a significant number of his followers from the insurgency. 

That's not to suggest that making overtures to Hekmatyar is necessarily a good idea. It could easily be very bad. He is not an insurgent of necessity, and his movement bears responsibility for some of the very worst attacks against both coalition forces and the Afghan government, including an attempt to assassinate President Karzai.  Moreover, whatever opportunism exists in him, it is tainted by an unbelievable record of brutality.  As Gopal's reporting makes plain, the man is one of the worst of the acid throwers, and it is far from clear that his immoderate views are reconcilable with the principles of the Afghan Constitution, or the values of the Afghan government. 

Hekmatyar's case illustrates the fundamental dilemma posed by breaking bread with core elements of the insurgency.  On the one hand, a deal with someone like him is likely to mean far more than a piecemeal approach that whittles away smaller armed contingents from the main adversary pool.  But it also poses a pretty unpalatable set of drawbacks.  I don't want to suggest that I'm against political reconciliation, or support installing bloodthirsty warlords in the Afghan government.  But to a certain extent, that is the exact nature of the choice at hand. 


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