India’s ‘Hekmatyar moment’ — a reference to the recent meeting between Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Manpreet Vohra and leader of the Hizb-e-Islami group Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, better known as the ‘butcher of Kabul’ for the merciless acts of violence carried out by him in the 1990s – is upon us.
A few years ago, such a meeting with a protégé of the Pakistani military establishment and a sworn enemy of the Indian state would have been unthinkable. Does it, then, portend a shift in New Delhi’s thinking? Will this lead to an outreach to other armed groups of the Taliban-led insurgency as well as those “reconciled” and “reintegrated” by the Afghan government?
The rapidly changing ground realities in Afghanistan provide a context in which answers to such questions can be sought.
Certainly, the conflict in Afghanistan seems to have reached a stalemate, which is why several nations aren’t averse to a political settlement with the Taliban. Not surprisingly, Russia, China, Iran, and the United States have made numerous attempts in that direction. New Delhi, on the other hand, has maintained its position of supporting an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process and has not made any unilateral attempt of talking to the Taliban.
In September 2016, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani signed a peace deal with Hezb-i-Islami leader and former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Prior to the deal, the first such peace treaty since 2001, the US and UN, upon Ghani’s insistence, had withdrawn the terror tags against him. Ghani clearly hoped the accord could serve as a possible template for any future peace deal with the Taliban. “This is a chance for the Taliban and other militant groups to …join the respected caravan of peace”, he said.
This caravan is aspirational, rather than a reality. At a time of dwindling credibility of the National Unity government and surge of insurgent violence, President Ghani needs to demonstrate his persistence to peace. Certainly, the understanding with Hekmatyar could be a bridge to the Taliban and a counter to the Islamic State.
Notwithstanding Human Right Watch’s caution that Hekmatyar’s return would “compound a culture of impunity”, the 25-point peace agreement has given him and his followers immunity for past actions, and granted them full political rights.
For India, the deal has been even more hideous. Through the late 1980s, Hekmatyar was the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI’s fountainhead of the Afghan jihad. He had been very critical of New Delhi’s refusal to condemn the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “The Indian government is making a mistake by siding with the aggressor (the Soviet Union) instead of supporting the Afghan nation,” he had said in 1988.
Home times have changed ! As the dice rolls again in Afghanistan, new challenges are forcing old players to realign their positions. The Taliban, for example, has criticized the deal with Hekmatyar. As for New Delhi, its fear of being left out in the cold has forced it to reach out to Hekmatyar; after all, the Indian ambassador’s meeting is in line with India’s policy of supporting Kabul’s endeavour.
Over tea with the Indian ambassador, Hekmatyar praised India for its developmental works in Afghanistan, such as building the Salma Dam in Herat.
According to one school of thought in New Delhi, this meeting may pave the way to talks with other groups, including the Taliban. But another school questions the utility of such associations as the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan and may not be allowed to take part in such talks. In the past as well, the pro-talks constituency has been marginalized or neutralized for precisely this reason – the road to peace in Afghanistan essentially runs through Islamabad.
Does this now mean that an improvement in Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations holds the key to any progress on the Afghanistan front?
The sense that Pakistan is gaining back its strategic space in Afghanistan, with Hekmatyar’s re-entry into Kabul’s political landscape, is compounded by several other events : Russia’s flirtation with Pakistan and the Taliban, confusion in the US foreign policy and the fraying post-Taliban unity in Afghanistan.
Perhaps New Delhi has to think of new forays, besides its pledge of $2.5 billion in capacity building, infrastructure and developmental projects. The goodwill generated by Indian assistance has also been acknowledged by the local Taliban. It would be critical to weave them into the development narrative so that their reintegration into Afghan politics and society is smooth. A handshake with Hekmatyar is a good photo op, but it must be accompanied by building the capacity of indigenous institutions, such as the Afghan High Peace Council. Otherwise the dangers of subversion, from within, run high.