By Alexander Murray*
On February 4, the UN Security Council (UNSC) agreed to remove Hezb-e-Islami-e-Gulbuddin (HIG) power-broker and former Afghan Prime Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, from its international sanctions list. Having negotiated a truce with HIG and settled on the peaceful terms of Hekmatyar’s reintegration into Afghan civil society, the government of President Ashraf Ghani is sure to welcome the news.
This action by the UNSC is precisely what they had requested nearly two months ago. This sudden development, as I have previously warned, should be met with great skepticism not only for the regional actors involved, but also concerning the ever changing role of Russia.
The current situation regarding Russia and Hekmatyar is an abrupt change to what was, until now, long standing distrust and animosity. Russia has clearly given up on these sentiments in order to combat what it sees as a growing threat by Daesh in Central Asia, forge stronger regional ties with Pakistan and consequently China, and expand its sphere of influence in what may be a waning space of former American influence. All of this ensures Russian security, a manageable amount of regional instability, and the maintenance of Russian energy companies’ regional pre-eminence.
Hekmatyar’s Russian Role
Russian foreign policy circles do not hold Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in high regard. He has consistently been regarded as a man who was understood to be actively hostile toward Russia, Pakistani supported, and American legitimated. The current change in Russian sentiments pertaining to Hekmatyar should not be seen as a shift to embrace, but rather a prioritization of dealing with the threat of Daesh. Almost none of the changes pertaining to Hekmatyar and HIG have been covered by major Russian news outlets. Such news would not sit well with the Russian population, as they are most likely unaware of how Hekmatyar no longer fills two of the three criteria aforementioned.
The nasty guerilla war waged by Hekmatyar against the Soviets has passed. Hekmatyar, according to Afghan sources, does not currently have any real capacity to engage in destabilizing Afghan security. Since the 1990s, American support for Hekmatyar via the Pakistani ISI has waned significantly. Given his propensity to unrealistically seek absolute power, America withdrew its support allowing the Taliban to fill a vacuum that international peace building initiatives could not. Russia recognizes that Hekmatyar’s real power lacks any destabilizing capacity, and that he is no longer an American stooge.
What Hekmatyar may still have, however, are lasting points of influence within the Pakistani security state, and most likely, Russia recognizes this. Once a foe, Hekmatyar may ultimately serve Russian aims in the region as a pawn in bringing Pakistan (another shifting former American ally) into its long term regional goals. Pakistan is already at the beck and call of China. To unite Pakistan, China, and Russia in this area would certainly serve Moscow well.
The Russian Peacemaker
Moscow has recently witnessed a change in Afghan power dynamics. There is a rising tide of isolationist sentiment in the United States (the preeminent Afghan security guarantor) and a well justified fear of growing ISIS sentiment in Afghanistan as the security situation managed by President Ghani deteriorates. Moscow has also appropriately realized its regional position as a legitimate Middle East peace broker given its action in Syria and talks with the Afghan Taliban. Even prior to these instances, Russia has conducted meetings with high level elements of the Afghan Taliban. Compounding each of these concerns is Russian energy and the Central Asian market, both of which Moscow demands control.
By removing sanctions on Hekmatyar, Moscow has indicated a willingness to work with the government of President Ghani. More than likely, this will be utilized as an act of good faith to begin Russian lead efforts to bring the Taliban into the fold. Hopefully, such an act would be of a non-violent political nature working with, rather than against the Ghani government. Regardless, Russia seeks to empower Taliban elements for the reasons similar to that of Pakistan. The Taliban remain destabilizing in strictly a domestic capacity. The removal of Daesh is of high priority to the Afghan Taliban and this action satisfies the Pakistani and Russian goals of removing them as a greater regional threat.
Whether or not security returns to Afghanistan is of little concern. Either Russia will claim victorious credit for its struggle against Afghan elements of Daesh or point to the failed policies of previous American administrations for the Taliban’s continued prominence in determining Afghan security. The former scenario assures Russia of its domestic security and elevates Moscow on the international stage, while the latter serves to denigrate the United States’ foreign policy without alienating the ill-informed Trump administration. Russian peace is the only peace Moscow seeks to make.
Central Asian Economics
While little regarding Hekmatyar actually pertains to Central Asian economics, this area of the world returning firmly into the Russian sphere of influence does. Since 2008, Russian exports to Asia have seen growth of nearly 150%. Market destabilization of the Central Asian Republics (CARs) plays directly into Russian economic goals. So long as a limited amount of domestic CAR insecurity exists, Soviet era infrastructure lines retain their primacy.
Pipeline development spearheaded by Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan has been in a state of disarray since their inception as a result of regional insecurity. As a result of new pipelines to China, only recently has there been an increase of CAR exports to countries other than Russia. In this time, Chinese energy consumption has risen steadily. It can be said that CPEC development is a further indication of this. While Daesh may threaten Russia, unlike the Afghan central government, the Taliban only serve to threaten the CARs. A removal of Daesh and restoration of the Taliban play a significant role in maintaining Russian pre-eminence in the Central Asian “Great Game” of energy trade.
Russia has now allowed Hekmatyar the return he has desired, much to the Russian people’s ignorance and dismay. Moving forward, policy makers should continue to support the government of President Ghani if social liberalism, economic development, and regional security are of concern. Those same policy makers should be wary of further cosiness between Russia, Pakistan, and the Taliban. Even today, there has been an uptick in rhetoric from Moscow extolling its commitment to Afghan security.
What role Hekmatyar plays in the Afghan political scene may also indicate changes to Af-Pak relations. A man well versed in regional power balancing, President Ghani has moved back and forth from commitments to Islamabad toward engaging with Delhi. Given this propensity to oscillate between the two regional powers, look for relations with Islamabad to improve.
Eliminating Daesh from the Afghan political scene would benefit all regional players, however a return to Taliban based insecurity will only benefit Russia and Pakistan. If the Taliban is to be reintegrated into Afghan governing models, it should occur in a very limited capacity, ensuring the primacy of the elected government in Kabul. Ideally they would fill a role similar to that I have suggested of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It is adamant that the world community continue to view Kabul as the sole legitimate national government of Afghanistan and never provide the Taliban with such a comparison. Following this path will ensure the continued growth of Afghanistan’s democratic institutions.
*The author is a Contributing Researcher and Author, South Asia Analysis Group