South Asia | Hekmatyar’s second coming is a US-Pakistan enterprise

Hekmatyar’s second coming is a US-Pakistan enterprise

M.K. Bhadrakumar September 24, 2016 10:30 AM (UTC+8)
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One of the most colorful figures of the Afghan jihad, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, recently signed a peace deal with Kabul which is also seen as a back-to-back US-Pakistan deal.  Hekmatyar, who lives in Pakistan with his family, is known for his anti-Indian views. As India openly supports Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan, Islamabad wants to sever the ties between Delhi and Kabul and Hekmatyar can guarantee that in future. India has reason to be worried.

The draft peace accord initialed on September 22 in Kabul between the Afghan government and the famous Mujahedeen group Hezb-e-Islami (HiG) prima facie devolves upon the latter bidding farewell to arms and gaining acceptance as a mainstream political party.  It seems deceptively simple as a principled formula stemming from reconciliation.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is, arguably, one of the most colorful figures of the Afghan jihad and the leitmotif of Thursday’s peace deal will inevitably have a lot to do with his enigmatic personality.

Hekmatyar has passed through the hands of almost all the foreign intelligence agencies at one time or the other who have been involved in the Hindu Kush since the seventies in the great game– ranging from the Soviet KGB and the CIA to the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence.

That alone highlights that Hekmatyar is an immortal soul and his second coming cannot but graze on geopolitics.

Hekmatyar is a hugely ambitious political personality and a ruthless practitioner of power play. Today, he’d aspire for nothing less than Afghanistan’s presidency. So much from now onward will depend on how his over-vaulting ambition plays out.

If his past record is any indication, he will not brook opposition to his quest for power. Has he tempered and imbibed the spirit of democratic change? Time will tell.

Karim and Atmar hold a document after signing a peace deal in Kabul
Mohammad Amin Karim (R), representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Afghanistan national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar (L) hold a document after signing a peace deal in Kabul, September 22. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

HiG used to be Pakistan’s favorite proxy among the seven main Mujahedeen groups in the eighties in the fight against Soviet occupation, but it is a pale shadow of what it used to be, and is riven by factionalism. It is hardly an insurgent group anymore. Therefore, HiG’s accommodation may not bring about any major improvement in the security environment. But in political terms, the peace deal is of significance.

For one thing, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stands to gain. Ghani, a Kochi by ethnic background, lacks political base and Hekmatyar’s influence among the eastern Ghilzai Pashtuns has uses for him. (Taliban are dominated by Kandahari tribes.)

Creating a Pashtun pillar of support enables Ghani in immediate terms to stand up to the pressure from the rival faction within the National Unity Government (NUG) led by Chief Executive Officer Abdullah, whose main supporters are the Tajik groups from Panjshir and western Afghanistan.

Abdullah and his Tajik supporters have been traditionally locked in a mortal struggle with HiG since the eighties and the animosities are far from exhausted. Therefore, it is significant that the peace deal with HiG has been struck even as the legitimacy of the NUG hangs in balance and some sort of political transition may become inevitable in Kabul.

However, Hekmatyar is not used to being a junior partner, either. So, in a transition, if a Loya Jirga gets convened to decide on an interim government, Hekmatyar can be expected to play his cards to tilt the balance of forces in his favor.

As things stand, former President Hamid Karzai seems hopeful of leading an interim government, but Hekmatyar’s entry into the arena changes the matrix. Karzai meets a rival Pashtun leader in Hekmatyar who has a political pedigree that goes much further than his in time to the early seventies.

What we need to figure out, therefore, is the calculus involving foreign powers that lies submerged. The most crucial aspect here is the extent of foreign involvement in the deal-making leading to Hekmatyar’s return to center stage.

Prima facie, Washington has a bounty on his head as a wanted terrorist, and he is also on the UN’s list of dangerous terrorists. The western press berates him as the ‘Butcher of Kabul’. Yet, White House lost no time to welcome Thursday’s deal.

In a statement almost in real time, as if it is part of the deal itself, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price stated in Washington that the US ‘welcomes’ the deal, “applauds both parties for seeking a peaceful resolution through political dialogue and negotiation, and … commends the agreement as an important demonstration of the Afghan government’s commitment to restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

Quite obviously, US has given some sort of behind-the-scene assurance to the HiG that it will be removed from the UN’s list of terrorists and Hekmatyar himself would be a free bird, free to soar as high in the Afghan firmament as he wishes.

Arguably, such pacifism wouldn’t have been difficult for Washington, because Hekmatyar used to be, after all, the principal beneficiary of the CIA support for the Afghan Mujahedeen in the eighties and was even received once in the Oval Office by President Ronald Reagan.

Interestingly, Islamabad has kept mum about the Afghan government’s deal with HiG. But this in no way implies indifference, since Hekmatyar and family live in Pakistan under the protection of the security agencies and he wouldn’t do anything without his mentors’ approval.

The known unknown, therefore, is how far Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence calibrated the timing of Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation.

The point is, Ghani-Hekmtayar deal is also a back-to-back US-Pakistan deal. Now there is a congruence of interests for both the US and Pakistan to bring about an orderly transition in Kabul. Of course, both countries are apprehensive about Karzai outsmarting them and assuming power once again. On the other hand, Hekmatyar is a consensus choice for both CIA and ISI.

Interestingly, Tehran also welcomes the peace deal with HiG, which is not really surprising because Hekmatyar lived in Iran for many years in exile during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and is well-known to Iranian intelligence.

For Pakistan, the prime consideration would be that Hekmatyar has a fierce reputation for being ‘anti-Indian’. He was unique among Mujahedeen groups to explicitly threaten to fuel the insurgency in Kashmir.

Given India’s open support to Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan, Pakistan is determined to ensure that there will be no nexus possible between Delhi and Kabul in any future political dispensation in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar can guarantee that.

Does Hekmatyar’s ‘second coming’ mean a reversal of Pakistani priorities away from Taliban back to HiG as its principal ‘strategic asset’ in Afghanistan? Such a possibility cannot be ruled out – more likely, though, ISI will opt to keep both horses in the race for power in Kabul.

Coincidence or not, on the eve of the peace deal in Kabul on Thursday, a group of prominent establishment figures in Islamabad who’d echo the thinking in the GHQ in Rawalpindi – three former foreign secretaries and one former national security adviser – jointly penned an essay underscoring the imperatives of a major policy rethink on Afghanistan.

The thrust of their argument was that Pakistan must prioritize its existential struggle vis-à-vis India in Kashmir, and to this end, quickly normalize ties with Washington and Kabul. Simply put, they wrote, Pakistan should disengage from the Taliban, including the Haqqani group, and marshal its resources instead on “Pakistan’s ability to forcefully advocate the Kashmir cause.”

Clearly, a paradigm shift makes sense insofar as it also creates a more favorable setting for the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Besides, Pakistan is desperately keen to regain the verve in the relations with the US.

To be sure, Pakistan is doing a great favor to the US by helping out in the highly sensitive Afghan transition to the post-Ghani phase at a juncture when the Obama presidency has entered the ‘lame duck’ phase. What does it expect in return? India will be agonizing over this question.

The US cannot but reciprocate Pakistan’s cooperation. How will that affect the US stance apropos India-Pakistan tensions or the upheaval in the Indian part of Kashmir? India has reason to feel worried.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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