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A handshake with Hekmatyar could break new ground in Afghanistan

As the conflict reaches a stalemate 16 years after 9/11, several countries seem interested in a reconciliation with the Taliban. Does this mean that a solution runs through Rawalpindi?

Written by Shanthie Mariet D’Souza | Published: June 16, 2017 9:55 am
Ashraf Ghani, Kabul attacks, Afghanistan president, world news Afghan President Ashraf Ghani prays during a peace and security cooperation conference in Kabul, Afghanistan June 6, 2017. Reuters/Omar Sobhani

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 Prior to the deal, the first such peace treaty since 2001, the US and UN, upon Ghani’s insistence, had withdrawn the terror tags against him.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.

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is an expert on Afghanistan who has been working on the ground in that country for the last decade. She is the founder president of Mantraya.org

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    1. R
      Jun 16, 2017 at 3:02 pm
      There r certain nations like us and politicians who need war and war endlessly to run their business and make profits. Fools r those who attach such wars to national interests. These all wars of world r waged, they r never going to be solved if no honest powerful leadership and nations r involved. Countries like america russia earn from wars of others. They don't want peace. They fuel war with pak, try their best to entice between india and china. They r one hand supporting saudi arab and same time sell F16 fighters to qatar to fight Saudis! World is in the hand of terrible countries and leaders, and it's pain would grow till the a ude of such countries and certain political leadership not controlled. In india,in past three years all money has dried, no fund in departments as important and small as science technology, but nonstop costly defence deals r being done with overtone of urgency of war! Employees hv ben denied ry dues, farmers r dying pm traveling and doing defence dls!
      1. R
        Jun 16, 2017 at 4:08 pm
        For records: It was US which has established Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is quite strange that Saudi which supports all these whaabi terrorism for decades, is a good ally of the USA, the so called fighter of terror. It is well known fact that Talban was raised by US, so was Bin Laden to counter Russia. It is heavily suspected now that even ISIS has roots in US support, and US went to tizzy when Russia attacked ISIS and ended America's drama there in just couple of months while allying with Iran. America has been biggest arms supplier to stan, and now it also sells to India. Our foolish politicians and world leaders are either with low IQ or utterly cowards and dishonest. No in between. The amount of money being spent on buying arm could have been extremely low had been the same money invested in strengthening Indian education and research system and let things really develop from India instead of making hollow slogan of Make in India. You are starving today your scientists!
      2. K
        Kuldip Singh
        Jun 16, 2017 at 1:52 pm
        An exceptional articulation, that cuts through many different dynamics to give a reader the prognosis in simple language.
        1. K
          Jun 16, 2017 at 12:47 pm
          At a time when India, Afghanistan, Iran, stan and even Russia are trying to bring peace back to Afghanistan, the US President D Trump has given a free hand to Pentagon to increase military presence there to whatever level it wants. This is a clear message from the Americans that they can't allow regional players to resolve their issues amicably. America wants wars to continue.