Notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is back to centre stage in Afghanistan and could play a pivotal role in the future political arrangement of the country. Hekmatyar is rumoured to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan but with last week’s deal signed between his party the Hezb-i-Islami and the National Unity Government, it will not be long before the butcher of Kabul resurfaces. Hekmatyar, a former Mujahideen leader was a favourite of the Americans when he was fighting the Russians. He was also close to the Pakistani military and virulently anti-Indian. Pakistan is hoping to use the Hekmatyar card against India. Whether it will work remains to be seen.
Last week’s agreement will give Hekmatyar and his supporters immunity for killing thousands of Afghan civilians in the civil war that wracked the country soon after the Russian soldiers left. Hekmatyar, who is a US and UN-designated global terrorist, has also been promised that his name will be deleted from the global terror list. Washington, desperate to have a political settlement in Afghanistan has promised to help. In return, Hekmatyar has promised to give up violence and abide by the Afghan Constitution.
His entry will shake up the political situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is hoping he will be in a position to ensure that President Ashraf Ghani cools down his enthusiasm for India. Soon after becoming president, Ghani had vowed to reset ties with Pakistan which remained bitter during his successor Hamid Karzai’s tenure. Karzai had excellent relations with India, and Islamabad had often charged New Delhi and Kabul of destabilising Baluchistan through Indian operatives posted in Jalalabad. Ghani started his tenure by wooing Pakistan’s military, breaking protocol to call on then army chief General Ashfaq Kayani at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Ghani had hoped that Pakistan would get the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal with the new government. Ghani had campaigned for getting all Afghans on the table for a political solution to the current impasse. The hopes were belied, with the President now accusing Pakistan’s military of using the Haqqani network and allowing the use of its territory to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
Will Hekmatyar be in a position to change the President’s approach to India remains to be seen. Pakistan will hope to use the Hekmatyar to its advantage, but it is too early to predict anything in the complicated tribal intrigues of Afghanistan.
For one, the Hezb-i-Islami is no longer the force it once was. Many of them have long split from Hekmatyar and joined the Taliban others have now joined Daesh. The Hezb have been attacking foreign soldiers and like the Taliban wants all foreign troops out of Afghanistan. The Hezb can claim to be as nationalistic as the Taliban as they had never played footsie with the US or any other Western power. Having these fierce nationalists come overground may encourage many of the Taliban to do so. Moreover, Hekmatyar is a Pashtun, and the majority of the Taliban also come from the Pasthun heartland. They are the largest group among the various tribes in the country and without Pashtuns involved no peace settlement can be meaningful. Negotiations between the government and the Hezb has been on the for last two years. President Ashraf Ghani's government of technocrats have been unable to deliver. It came to power with the grand promise of reconcilation and peace with the Taliban. But each successive day the Taliban is growing in strength and is in control of large swathes of territory in the countryside. It has also carried out daring terror strikes under the very nose of the government in the capital. The government is hoping that Hekmatyar’s decision to give up violence may encourage many within the Taliban to do the same.
Whether the expectations are justified is hard to tell. But Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a shrewd and ambitious politician besides being a ruthless warrior. Some believe he has set his eyes on the presidency and will be playing his cards right. There are reports from Afghanistan quoting a senior Hezb leader that the former warlord will throw his hat in the ring for the 2019 presidential elections.
Given Hekmatyar’s anti-Indian stand, his resurrection will be a plus for Pakistan’s deep state, unhappy with Ghani’s current close ties with New Delhi. Pakistan can now rely not just on the Taliban but also the Hizb to ensure that a final settlement of the Afghan problem will ensure a friendly Pasthun dominated government in power in Kabul. Rawalpindi’s long-term strategic goal is to minimise India’s presence in its backyard and if possible get India completely out of Afghanistan as it was during the Taliban rule. The Modi government's open support for the Baluch cause is disquieting for General Raheel Sharif and his men. A pro-India government in Kabul will help both Afghanistan and India to stir the Baloch cauldron even more. Taking all this into consideration Pakistan must be relieved that Hekmatyar is back in the centre stage of Afghanistan’s politics. How this will eventually pan out will be worth watching.