Hekmatyar’s presence in Kabul may help create political space for Pakistan
On September 28, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, agreed to a peace deal with the Afghan government and pledged to work for a “peaceful Afghanistan.”
Notwithstanding an anti-Hekmatyar protest demonstration in Kabul and some individual voices in the Afghan media, the peace deal was widely welcomed on national and international levels.
Coincidentally, the day when Hekmatyar was addressing, via a pre-recorded video message, the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, were advancing on Kunduz, Afghanistan’s Northern Province and a key transit route to Central Asia.
Kunduz is also the home province of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Being a Kharotay Pashtun, Hekmatyar’s forefathers migrated to Kunduz from Ghazni long ago and made the district of Imam Sahib in the province as their permanent abode.
The siege of Kunduz continues as of the filing of this report and according to local officials and residents, the Taliban are still present on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunduz City. Besides, the Taliban has also captured several parts of Helmand province in the volatile southern region and struggling hard to overcome the resistance presented by the government troops in and around Lashkar Gah, the capital of the province.
On the political front, the Afghanistan’s unity government is divided into two major camps and both President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah Abdullah don’t see eye to eye with each other on a number of issues. It was not long ago that Dr Abdullah termed President Ghani as a man unfit for office.
The present Taliban advance on Kunduz comes just a year after its militia briefly captured the city of Kunduz in late September 2015. This was the Taliban’s first-ever capturing of a provincial capital and an immense morale boost for their fighters since the overthrow of the hardliner regime in late 2001.
While Ghani’s government is struggling on the political as well as security fronts, the peace deal with Hekmatyar no doubt provides a breathing space for the beleaguered president. But will Hekmatyar be able to play any significant role in bringing peace to the war-battered country?
A very common perception in Afghanistan is that Hezb-e-Islami is a spent insurgent force in the battlefield mainly because more powerful, violent and tactically smart militant groups have taken over during the past decade and a half. “Hekmatyar’s peace deal is a positive step but it is useless to pin hopes on HeI regarding an end to the ongoing insurgency,” says Hekmatullah Azimi, a Kabul-based analyst and commentator.
Over the past 15 years, while the group’s chief was was hiding in neighboring Iran and Pakistan and one of his party’s faction was busy on the war front, other factions and leaders opted for a political struggle contesting elections and joining offices under the former president Hamid Karzai.
On the battlefront, Hekmatyar’s rivals, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, outdid his group by carrying out spectacular attacks in Afghanistan killing both civilians and government personnel.
Several of Hezb-e-Islami’s representatives participated in the first-parliamentary election in post-Taliban Afghanistan in September 2005 and some of them were elected to the Wolesi Jirga or lower house of the Afghan parliament and the provincial councils. Their number further increased in the second parliamentary election held in September 2010.
As of 2014, Hezb-e-Islami’s political iteration had five ministers, several provincial governors and a number of representatives in the Afghan lower house of parliament and provincial councils. Azimi believes it is likely that some factions or leaders, who see their interests in the continuation of war, will refuse to accept Hekmatyar’s peace deal and join other militant groups or form their own with new names in the pretext that they want to continue the”‘holy war” till the complete withdrawal of foreign troops.
While it is widely accepted that Hekmatyar’s peace deal is not going to bring any change to the insurgency, his political presence is generally seen as a space for Pakistan in Kabul at a time when Islamabad and New Delhi are seriously involved in a tug of war on Afghan turf. Hekmatyar’s past affiliation with his Pakistani sponsors may likely generate a pro-Islamabad voice in an otherwise hostile Kabul.
Pakistan lost an opportunity in Afghanistan following Ghani’s two-day visit to Islamabad in November 2014, which also included a visit to the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army and a meeting with the army chief General Raheel Sharif.
Hopes were high as an enthusiastic Ghani was watching a cricket match with the newly-elected Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad; Sharif and his government assured the Afghan president of his country’s support and cooperation in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table.
Just as has happened in the past, the Kabul-Islamabad honeymoon ended in diplomatic deadlock following the unabated terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and the failure of the Afghan government’s peace talks with the Taliban which Pakistan had promised to bring to the table.
Disregarding opposition from former president Hamid Karzai, who had had become very critical of Pakistan in the last years of his presidency, Ghani opened a new chapter befriending Pakistan. However, his efforts did not bear fruit and like his predecessor, Ghani also became disenchanted with Pakistan and starting looking towards the latter’s arch rival India.
Diplomatic deadlock and and border clashes in June and July this year were followed by tougher measures to restrict the entry of Afghans into Pakistan. The expulsion of Afghan refugees further increased the chasm on both sides of the Pak-Afghan divide.
Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand believes that Hekmatyar’s presence in Kabul may help create political space for Pakistan. “Gulbuddin can be effective from Pakistan’s point of view at a time when India is increasing its leverage in Afghanistan, and Pakistan needs a friendly voice in Kabul.”
Will that be possible? Rustam Shah can’t say it for sure. And the reason is much clear. After remaining out of the scene for so many tumultuous years of the Afghan history and re-emerging at a time when a new generation of more active, open minded and educated Afghans are taking over the stage, no one can say for sure that Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami will occupy the space it enjoyed during the years of jihad and civil war.
Failure to prove his presence on the political front, Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul will prove a zero sum game for him. However, the deal is a big morale boost for President Ghani at a time when he is fighting on several fronts.