To readers in Hyderabad and Southern India, far away from the country’s north-western borders, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s name is unlikely to ring the bell. But his being re-invented by, of all the institutions the United Nations, makes it significant, not the least, because of the impact it could have on the South Asian region and beyond.
During West-led ‘holy’ war against the erstwhile Soviet Union that invaded Afghanistan, through the 1980s, he was a part of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) that ensured that a significant part of the millions that were poured in by the West, particularly the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), went to Hekmatyar. And for all these largesse of funds and weapons, he never succeeded in even one anti-Soviet operation.
Post that war, he turned against the Americans though not against Pakistan whose “strategic asset” he has steadfastly remained. Pakistan will not touch him the way it has not touched the Haqqani network, another dreaded ‘asset’ that the US wants eliminated. The enigma called Hekmatyar then becomes a bigger enigma now that he is being promoted by the very Americans he killed many at whose behest he was designated by the UN.
We are talking of a man rightly riled worldwide as the “Butcher of Kabul.” He never honoured Afghanistan’s prime ministership given to him as part of a deal among the warring groups to come to power in the early 1990s after the erstwhile Soviet Union quit Afghanistan, leaving behind a beleaguered protégé, President Najibullah.
That hope was to prevent him from engaging in violence and massacre. But he engaged in both, killing thousands of innocent civilians, to get the better of his rivals. Indeed, the walls of buildings and forts in and around Kabul that this writer has witnessed even today bear marks of his missiles.
It is difficult to apportion blame on any single individual or group in Afghanistan, notorious for its continuing fratricidal violence, but experts have blamed over 60 per cent of that on fighters of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami party.
Besides killing those belonging to other tribes and ethnic groups and ravaging the city, Hekmatyar’s men targeted women in particular. They imposed extreme restrictions on their moving out and/or working, even forcing them to curtain their doors and windows.
These marauders were the principal reason why successive governments that sought to rule in Afghanistan in the first half of the 1990s were never able to consolidate and finally paved the way for the rise of the Taliban.
With this sordid history as its backdrop, it has become necessary to understand why an ageing Hekmatyar, said to be in failing health as per reports, who lost political and military ground and fled to Iran where he lived for six years, is being resurrected.
Taking in the larger picture, it is necessary to see this seemingly minor development as a new phase begins in what is called the “Great Game” in global geopolitical parlance. This is even more so as the tussle among the Big Powers to control Afghanistan, the resource-rich Central Asian and West Asia, which is already in turmoil, has a new, formidable entrant : China.
The picture is yet to become clear since poachers continue to pose as gamekeepers in Afghanistan. The shifting geopolitical sands have ensured that Afghanistan remains a bone of contention among players within, in close proximity and far-off.
Enter a serious concern that is global, not confined to the region. That is the inroads being made by the Islamic State (IS) or Da’esh into Afghanistan where its rival and older force, Al Qaida, is already operating. This rivalry has injected a sense of urgency that has been projected as the principal cause for the lifting of UN sanctions on Hekmatyar and his party.
Who are the forces that want Hekmatyar back? Who are the obvious gainers and who are likely to be impacted? On February 3, the UN lifted sanctions and removed Hekmatyar’s name from the list of terrorists in approval of a deal with the government in Kabul of President Ashraf Ghani on September 22 last year. The Kabul government pardoned him for all his excesses.
But contradictions are emerging. The deal was one of the last moves by the Obama administration bent upon keeping out the Russians who have developed renewed interest in Afghanistan and are teaming up with China, Pakistan and Iran. But the new Trump administration, not overtly hostile to Russia as Obama’s was, seems more focused on Da’esh and less interested in expanding its presence in Afghanistan. If Obama was anti-Russia and combating China, Trump is anti-Iran, readying to undo the nuclear deal Obama had signed with Tehran.
Former Indian diplomat and eminent Afghanistan watcher M K Bhadrakumar notes: “Arguably, Russia has the will and the capability to succeed in Afghanistan where the US and its NATO allies have failed to produce results even after 15 years of fighting. Syria testifies to it. Perhaps, the denouement in Syria is precisely the spectre that unnerves the Americans in Afghanistan.” The constant winner, no matter this realignment at the global and regional levels, is Pakistan. It has backed both, Hekmatyar and the Taliban.
It has shot down efforts to even establish contacts with those Taliban who are not in its good books. Ambivalent towards Pakistan the Trump administration may be, it would need Islamabad to keep its declining clout. That is where the Ghani-Hekmatyar deal may be put to work with results that remain unclear.
The deal is seen as a mutual give-and-take between a rebel leader whose group of Afghan fighters has lost much of force and relevance and a government that has lost much territory to the Afghan Taliban operating from Pakistani soil. They cannot take Kabul, but the government also cannot wrest the territory they increasingly control.
How far Hekmatyar’s return will help Afghanistan remains a big question mark. His record is one of a divisive man whose hallmark has been violence. His urge for power through weapons and his fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were the reasons why he could not work with other Mujahideen groups who got – and wasted – power in the 1990s. But precisely these qualities had made him the preferred guy by Reagan’s US and Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan. This irony cannot be lost as he stages a comeback of sort.
In an interview in 2013 with a local TV channel, he hailed his designation as a “terrorist” by the United States and international community. It is hard to believe he can change in a few years to become an advocate for peace. As of now, Afghanistan’s fate hangs in the balance, depending largely on whether the Taliban insurgency will ever come to an end.
The peace gamble with Hekmatyar is unlikely to help Kabul to reach at any kind of reconciliation with the Taliban. On the contrary, it is possible that he may weaken from within an already weak Ghani regime and help the emboldened Taliban, with Pakistani support that may no longer remain covert.
In sum, it is advantage Pakistan, no matter who is sponsoring, shielding or supporting Hekmatyar – each one to serve one’s own, often contradictory, self-interest. In the entire ongoing exercise, India does not seem to figure at all. Its old allies Russia and Iran have joined another bandwagon and China, Pakistan’s “all weather friend,” will not allow India a toe-hold. The return of an anti-India Hekmatyar is more than just an indication of this.
[ Mahendra Ved is NST’s New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association 2016-2018 and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org ]