When Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a famous figure on the Afghan jihadist scene in the 1980s, appears in Kabul after an absence of over two decades, it’s big news.
The man, his timing, his controversial past… all have combined to create a wave of excitement and anticipation that an inflection point in the Afghan war is upon us.
Gulbuddin evokes strong feelings of antipathy among many Afghans – especially among the Tajiks and Hazaras who dominate Kabul. However there are equal numbers, in the Pashtun heartlands of the south, who empathise with him.
Gulbuddin certainly isn’t the first figure to emerge out of the fog of a long and brutal war to stake his claim in a post-war scenario. The questions that must be asked therefore relate to the political agenda of his mentors and his capacity to adapt to new realities. Arguably, Afghanistan has entered the post-truth era. This needs some explaining.
For a start, the timing of Gulbuddin’s “return” must be carefully noted. True, Hezb-e Islami has been represented in the Afghan government for the past several years and there is some inevitability about Gulbuddin identifying with the compact, finally. Through all these years, he was ostensibly at odds with the Taliban but some superior force apparently prevailed upon the latter not to wreak vengeance on him. Left to itself, the Taliban could have easily eliminated him – as it assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani. But it didn’t.
Evidently, it was written in Gulbuddin’s stars that he had a higher destiny. Couldn’t a drone have spotted him in Nangarhar and simply erased him from the face of the earth, with no questions asked? Yes, that was eminently feasible – after all, the US included him in its vaunted list of notorious terrorists in 2003. But the CIA drones have avoided him like the plague. The only logical explanation is that former President Barack Obama was savvy enough to foresee the need for a Plan B in Afghanistan at some point.
A timely ‘second coming’
What could US-Pakistani congruence over Gulbuddin really be about? There is no gainsaying the fact that Gulbuddin goes back a long way both with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the US’ Central Intelligence Agency. Such Faustian deals have a way of remaining evergreen.
Gulbuddin’s “second coming” is important for both Pakistan and the US at this point in time. Washington fears that regime collapse in Kabul is fast becoming a real possibility and knows a Plan B is necessary if the ugly “Vietnam scenario” of Americans evacuating in haste is not to be repeated. The addition of a “few thousand more” western troops at this point will not change the reality on the ground.
Meanwhile, for Pakistan, the scenario of civil war and total anarchy being loosed is unthinkable because its spill over the Durand Line could be calamitous.
For both Pakistan and the US, the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) brings its own “known unknown” factor. Suffice to say that Washington and Islamabad have a shared interest today in stabilizing the Afghan situation with a view to holding the country back from hurtling down the abyss. The Trump administration may soon be left with no option but to rope in Pakistan as its gendarme for Afghanistan. Both Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor HR McMaster are likely to be thinking on these lines.
Gulbuddin has a key role to play in this calculus. Three things matter here.
One, there is great complementarity between the (Afghan) Taliban and Hezb-e Islami. Gulbuddin can be instrumental in finessing or “refining” the Taliban to turn it into a ruling-elite-in-waiting. Both Hezb-e and the Taliban are Pashtun-centric. However Hezb-e was traditionally rooted in areas such as Kunar, Laghman, Jalalabad and Paktia – which also happen to be the regions where IS-K has set its sights. Gulbuddin can play a unique role in the marginalization of the IS-K.
Two, Afghanistan’s “Pashtun countryside” is alienated from the Kabul elites, whereas Gulbuddin has an appeal in those southern and eastern regions thanks to the folklore of the “jihad” of the 1980s, which lies embedded in the collective consciousness of the Pashtun “masses”.
Three, amongst all Mujahideen groups, Hezb-e (which has its origins on the campus of Kabul University campus in the early 1970s) has tended to attract the largest cadres of educated Afghans. Much of this is a matter of historical legacy today, but it can be reclaimed as a valuable inheritance. Put differently, Hezb-e brings in “brain power”, which the Taliban abysmally lacks.
A ‘life force’ for Aghanistan
Gulbuddin’s thoughtful remarks last week – both in Jalalabad as he set out for Kabul and in a speech on Friday in Kabul – reflect that his agenda is to harness the Taliban’s “life force,” which Hezb-e lacks today – under his leadership, of course. He called for an Islamic system in Afghanistan, disbandment of the National Unity Government, an end to foreign interference and reconciliation with the Taliban.
For Pakistan, Gulbuddin’s impeccably anti-Indian credentials are likely to endear him. Meanwhile, the US trusts him to keep the Russians at bay. If Plan B were to work, the US would have to do the heavy lifting to ensure India, in league with Russia and Iran, doesn’t present a spoke in the wheels. Pakistan must also make up its mind to let go of the Russian connection.
As for China, the Trump administration sees tremendous potential to take up Beijing’s offer of co-operation to resolve regional conflicts. At any rate, China is a stakeholder in the stabilization of Afghanistan, too. The only dark horse is Iran.
Significantly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif arrived unannounced in Kabul on Sunday. Interestingly, he had met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in a hurried, day-long trip to Islamabad on Wednesday before moving on to Afghanistan.
If Plan B were to work, the US would have to do the heavy lifting to ensure India, in league with Russia and Iran, doesn’t present a spoke in the wheels
His mission appears to have been to convey Iran’s profound disquiet over IS-Khorasan (whom former President Hamid Karzai recently accused of being the progeny of the US) and, secondly, attempts to distinguish between “good or bad terrorists” (read attempts to legitimize the Taliban).
Zarif iterated Tehran’s readiness to support Kabul in standing up to any outside attempts to dominate Afghanistan or dictate the terms of regional politics. Zarif also publicly warned at a press conference in Kabul that whoever is propping up the IS-Khorasan will eventually regret it when the blowback occurs.
Evidently, these are early days. There has been many a slip between the cup and the lip for Gulbuddin. He almost seized power in 1992, but Ahmed Shah Massoud pipped him to the post. When resistance began over Mujahideen excesses, the ISI preferred to rally Taliban instead of asking him to lead the charge of the light brigade.
When the Taliban regime was ousted, Gulbuddin attempted a comeback but the ISI simply mothballed him. This is going to be a final attempt from Gulbuddin to grab power in Kabul. If he doesn’t realize his life’s ambition this time in post-truth Afghanistan, it will be a case of the curtain coming down for the 69-year old warhorse.