By Alexander Murray*
Earlier this month, the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani made requests of the UN Security Council (UNSC) that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his political affiliate, Hezb-e-Islami-ye-Gulbuddin (HIG), be removed of international sanctions.
The European Union Deputy Head of the delegation brokering the 22 September Afghan-HIG peace accords, George Cunningham informally responded to these requests noting that the current domestic agreement requires further verification before any UN action would be recommended by the EU. Both of these statements say much to the ongoing struggle in eastern Afghanistan and each party should be watched closely.
Having returned to a heightened state of tension with Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have sought ever closer ties with one another both economically and politically. Both parties have vocally sympathized with the other’s struggle against actors within Pakistan and reinvigorated interest regarding their mutual economic goals. In doing so, Pakistani state interests have been squeezed and the results are playing out across the Line of Control as well as the Durand Line. The Afghan government’s embrace of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his HIG party should not be viewed as an effective means for Kabul to reassure Islamabad nor an active case of peace being achieved. Exercising restraint regarding this development is essential in appreciating the potential to bring additional actual, though limited, stability to Afghanistan; a means to opening new lines of communication between Kabul and Islamabad; and added volatility to Indo-Afghan relations.
For most of his active participation in Afghan politics, Hekmatyar has existed as an extension of the Pakistani security state. His roles have always been financed and directed by Pakistani groups, and at times, directly by the Pakistani state. It is of note, that this can also be said of American and British state security agencies dating back to the Afghan Soviet resistance movement of the 1980s and through the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. While other foreign powers have completely rescinded their support for Hekmatyar, the Pakistani security apparatus has only reduced their funding of HIG. They have however balanced their support to domestic Afghan actors depending on their perceived ability to deliver, hence Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban from the mid 1990s to present. (Henceforth, the “Taliban” shall be understood specifically as the Afghan Taliban)
Since the early 1980s, the Pakistani security apparatus has supported political Islamic extremist movements to further its own rally call to the Kashmiri conflict. This has and continues to manifest itself in Afghanistan through sponsorship of the Taliban and HIG. Currently, most analysts consider the Taliban to be the most credible threat to Afghan security. HIG is merely a shadow of its former self, commanding almost no militant threat, and exists in a state of conflict with the Taliban.
President Ghani has taken this opportunity of prolonged HIG weakness to extend an olive branch to Hekmatyar all the while when government negotiations with the Taliban appear fruitless. Given waning Pakistani and domestic support, HIB has found itself a willing partner with Kabul in efforts to generate the patronage required for its survival.
To see this as truly productive would be a gross misjudgement of the political realities. Hekmatyar has lost his political value to anyone but the Afghan state. The Afghan state is relying on the public memory of Hekmatyar as an influential actor so as to claim progress in its various peace initiatives. Whether or not Ghani is able to utilize this to garner public support remains to be seen, but what must be watched closely is the new role within which Gulbuddin Hekmatyar now finds himself.
The peace accords have presently accomplished little in terms of actual tangible security. Alternatively they may have created a newly powerful Hekmatyar. Whether or not Hekmatyar is awarded a position of influence within Kabul, history suggests that he will enjoy his newfound political immunity to craft one of his own accord. His primary motivations have always been the maximization of own power and the advancement of a centralized extremist Sunni state. He has always seen himself and his HIG to be the only mechanism to accomplish these things hence his continued spoiling of any coalition based initiative. Throughout all of this, the potential for Pakistani involvement returns to the highest echelons of Afghan civil society.
With an emboldened Hekmatyar, protected by domestic immunity for alleged crimes of the past, the Pakistani security apparatus may have renewed its political influence in Kabul. During his prior tenure as Pakistani Prime Minister during the 1990s, Nawaz Sharif exerted Pakistani influence through many spheres, the one of the most powerful being Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. After much harassment and destabilization of the Afghan state by Pakistani actors since the 2014 degradation of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Islamabad should be viewing Hekmatyar’s amnesty and newfound position of influence with a sense of accomplishment.
The changing role of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the HIG suggest potentially destabilizing effects across South Asia and the greater central Asian region in general. Three primary areas of concern now arise from which one must consider varying courses of action: Afghan domestic security, regional Pakistani strategic interests, and Indo-Pak security.
Though there exist concerns regarding immunity for alleged war criminals, the signed peace deal renders those concerns obsolete at the present time. Hekmatyar has his immunity, and reneging on this guarantee may jeopardize future peace negotiations within Afghanistan. Having exhibited a commitment to current Afghan democratic institutions, though marginal in the eyes of many, Hekmatyar must be acknowledged for doing so. This should be seen as the primary way for the Afghan government to make the best out of a difficult situation. That said, Hekmatyar has a curriculum vitae of changing allegiances when beneficial opportunities present themselves thus little military power, if any should be granted. Kabul would be wise to create distance between Hekmatyar and any executive power. That noted, an office within the Ghani government may provide Kabul with the means to contain Hekmatyar whereas complete autonomy guarantees nothing. De jure and de facto constraints to Hekmatyar’s future actions are adamant. It is the current author’s perspective that a constrained government position is most beneficial to all Afghan government actors.
In order to utilize this peace accord to the fullest extent regarding Afghan internal security, Hekmatyar must be provided a political space of limited utility. By doing so, Kabul stands a chance of integrating the remnants of HIG into the political fold thereby contributing to stability in Kunduz and Nangarhar provinces. Hekmatyar has formerly exercised influence in these provinces, generally in opposition to the government, but also on occasion HIG has opposed Taliban forces. A situation whereby Hekmatyar is afforded a degree of political influence within Kabul has the potential to realign his remaining forces with the government and add a degree of stability to what recently have been two very volatile regions. The forces in question are of marginal strength, however such a precedent should be seen as positive nonetheless.
Having had very close relationships with Pakistani officials, Kabul stands at a crossroads regarding how any new position held by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar might be utilized in its dialogue with Islamabad. Should Hekmatyar find himself without a position as mentioned earlier, it is likely that the government of Prime Minister Sharif may find themselves even further ostracised than before. On the contrary, in the instance Hekmatyar manages to cajole any influence within the Ghani government, Islamabad may certainly view this as a welcome sign of thawing relations with Kabul. Regardless of any actual detente, a new line of communication will be available to both sides. Keeping Hekmatyar within arms-reach will be essential to making sure this renewed correspondence does not undermine the current efforts of both Kabul and Delhi.
Tight control over Hekmatyar’s communication with Islamabad is essential to Indo-Pak security concerns. Given Hekmatyar’s close ties not only to the Pakistani security apparatus, but also to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups within the Kashmiri insurgency, Hekmatyar’s role is sure to be watched with suspicion by Delhi. The past year has seen an ever closer convergence of Indo-Afghan security and economic policy, and a volatile Hekmatyar stands to deeply disturb this. India is a strategic investor in the Afghan state from Nimroz in the far west to Badakhshan in the far east. To upset this developing relationship would greatly damage the Ghani government’s attempts to realize economic development beyond the Kabul city streets.
Giving creed to the marginal existence of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s domestic influence, his former role as an extension of the Pakistani security apparatus, and his pretension to acting as a political spoiler perpetually realigning himself with the changing balance of power, Kabul and the UN must show goodwill in fulfilling their obligations to the agreement with HIG. However, they must exercise much strategic patience toward Hekmatyar and whatever political role he may fill. Rhetoric of any kind coming from Hekmatyar must be taken just as that and nothing more. The actions of him and whatever following he commands must be diligently analysed before any change in the status quo. Kabul should look to Islamabad regarding its newly acquired bargaining chip in Hekmatyar. Ultimately President Ghani has already pulled Hekmatyar into the fold. It is his government’s responsibility that Hekmatyar’s immunity and new found political space be used to further a positive domestic and regional agenda. Hekmatyar’s actions should never be allowed to leave government scrutiny again.
*The author is a political analyst from the University of Chicago.