Talking to the Afghan Insurgents: A Step Forward?

With news of a possible step forward in Afghan peace negotiations after the release of Taliban-affiliated prisoners, one can’t help but ask—is the possible normalization of relations between the West and various Afghan insurgent groups truly a step towards further human progress?

Is reconciliation with individuals like insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, above, truly a step towards human progress?

The term “moderate” is often bandied about in various articles and news reports when talking about Afghan peace negotiations. For example, various analysts and columnists call on the U.S. to step up efforts to reach out to moderate parties within the Afghan insurgency. But who are these alleged moderates? And what are they moderate about exactly?

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his organization Hezb-e-Islami frequently appears among those engaged in peace talks with the Afghan government and its Western backers. Yet if Hekmatyar counts among these so-called “moderates” I would hate to see the extremists. Many describe the Afghan warlord as a psychopath, hell-bent on achieving his aims by any means necessary, regardless of any codes of morality or honor.

In contrast to Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and his Haqqani Network are often depicted as less likely  to engage in peace talks with the United States and the Afghan government (although they have at times to little success).

So what’s the difference between Haqqani and Hekmatyar and/or their respective organizations? Is one more moderate or progressive than the other? Both men are responsible for horrible acts of violence against innocents—throwing acid in the face of female students, attacking schools, orchestrating suicide bombings, engaging in ethnic cleansing, executing prisoners.

The closest I’ve heard someone come to distinguishing a moral difference between the two came from a former freelance photographer I spoke with a few months ago who worked in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This individual interacted with Hekmatyar, Haqqani and their respective followers. He described Hekmatyar as a sociopath focused only on his own maintenance and expansion of power, while Haqqani as the embodiment of a tribal warlord. While Hekmatyar’s only moral code arises from a narcissistic sense of self-preservation, Haqqani, for the most part, abides by a strict tribal code, mainly drawn from the Pashtunwali codes. For example, this photographer explained, Haqqani treated his guests to the security and hospitality dictated by the Pashtun honor code, threatening to kill anyone of his men who enacted violence upon them, regardless if these guests were pious Muslims or “infidels.” In contrast, Hekmatyar gave little care to such tribal codes and follows them only as far as they benefit his own expansion of power.

Yet, despite these differences, it still remains difficult if not impossible to quantify a true moral difference between the two. So perhaps the term “moderate” when speaking of these parties seems a bit misplaced?

So I return to my original question, is the normalization of relations with bloodthirsty, illiberal barbarians a step towards human progress or no? Does the (perhaps temporary) cessation of the anarchy and inhumanity of war justify accommodating—whether they be sociopaths or tribal warriors—violent, oppressive thugs?