By Amitava Mukherjee*
The peace agreement between the Ashraf Ghani government of Afghanistan and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar may further obfuscate the already confused Afghan scenario. There are reasons behind the suspicion that Pakistan has gained a further strategic depth in Afghan affairs as Hekmatyar is known to be ambitious and virulently anti-Indian and he may try to position himself at the helm of Afghan affairs.
The peace deal, signed on September 22, 2016, has raised more questions than it has been able to answer. From 1997, Hekmatyar has been hiding in either Pakistan or Iran under direct supervision of the ISI and Iranian intelligence and as a result his organisation — the Hezb-e-Islami — has lost much of its clout in Afghan affairs, although it is the oldest of all the fundamentalist mujahideen organisations operating on Afghan soil.
As a result, the Hezb-e-Islami has undergone schism and a very powerful rival faction led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal has firmly entrenched itself in Kabul. Arghandiwal was a cabinet Minister in the Hamid Karzai-led former Afghan government and is an important component of the present National Unity Government (NUG).
So it is an open question why Ashraf Ghani agreed to enter into such an agreement. Obviously, he is under some amount of pressure. Otherwise, he would not have agreed to deal with a person who is under direct influence of Pakistan, a country with which Ashraf Ghani has sour relations at present. If the pressure is from the US then the most plausible reason is the fact that Washington is afraid of a probable comeback of Hamid Karzai, the former President of the country.
But from the standpoint of tribal equation, Ashraf Ghani has a reason to solicit Hekmatyar’s help. The Afghan President is a Kochi Ahmadzai, a sect which is not at all influential among the Pashtuns. In addition, Ghani has spent a great part of his life abroad and has lost much of touch with his tribal group. On the other hand, Hekmatyar comes from the Ghilzai Pashtuns and wields considerable influence among them.
This is important for Ashraf Ghani as the NUG is not at all a cohesive body and the Afghan President has strained relations with his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Pashtun-half Tajik.
Abdullah is a pro-Indian figure. His support base consists of former mujahideen warlords of the Northern Alliance like Ismail Khan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Karim Khalili etc. who are either Uzbek or Tajik or Hazara Shias. Some of them are important figures in the NUG government.
So Hekmatyar’s presence in Afghanistan is likely to help Ashraf Ghani.
But, for the Afghan President, this presents a dangerous possibility too. Although the Afghan presidential election is still far away yet there is a possibility that Hekmatyar may run for it. He is sure to have Pakistan’s support from the moment he sets foot on Afghan soil. What the US will do is a bit difficult to predict as it has declared Hekmatyar a “global terrorist” and the Hezb-e-Islami is on the UN list of “foreign terrorist organisations”. This is exactly the reason behind the absence of both Ashraf Ghani and Hekmatyar at the time of signing of the peace agreement.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s entry into the troubled Afghan waters is sure to rattle India as he is known to have worked with major intelligence agencies like the CIA, MI5 and the ISI. It is known that he has extracted a promise from the Afghan government that the latter would leave no stone unturned to get his name dropped from the US list of terrorists and that 20,000 of his supporter-families now living in exile in Pakistan would be rehabilitated in Afghanistan at government expense.
By all indications, the peace agreement may be an attempt to neutralise the importance of Abdullah Abdullah, who is backed by the powerful Tajik lobby of the Panjsher valley and western Afghanistan. It is to be noted here that Hamid Karzai had once taken a very big lead from western Afghanistan in one of Afghanistan’s earlier presidential elections.
Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation is likely to create ruffled feathers in two critical sectors — the Taliban and the Jamiat-e-Islami (JeI). The Taliban does not like Hekmatyar as the latter had recently supported the presence of Islamic State (IS) fighters in eastern Afghanistan. Previously, in 1990, Taliban had battered Hekmatyar’s soldiers on the outskirts of Kabul.
An equally serious challenge may come from the Jamiat-e-Islami, the biggest Islamic party of Afghanistan composed of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks. The JeI is packed with supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan President, and Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary former Defence Minister of the country. Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami may find the challenge from the JeI too tough.
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. Comments and suggestions on the article may be sent to: [email protected]