While the addition of a few thousand fresh US troops to Afghanistan to fight both the Taliban and the rising threat of ISIS may not have been successful in creating much difference on the ground, the return of Hekmatyar does stand better chances of buttressing the falling regime of Ghani and co.
But the conundrum might just become even worse if Hekmatyar and his principle rivals, the Tajiks and the Hazaras, who are currently dominating Kabul, fail to embrace each other for the greater good of the country.
It is a moot question if the erstwhile rival groups would now forget the long-past, try to resolve differences and agree to a common course of action. For one thing, Hekmatyar is expected to facilitate the Taliban’s return to the negotiating table. In other words, he is going to perform a task that the Taliban’s historical rivals, the Tajiks and the Hazaras, have been resisting since the mid-1990s.
His pro-jihad stance that he did express at some length during his come-back-speech notwithstanding, Hekmatyar also represents Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic configuration i.e., the Pashtun. Therefore, the role he plays is likely to have many ramifications in the blurring or reinforcing Afghanistan’s ethnic faultlines.
Let’s not also miss that Hekmatyar’s erstwhile base-areas are a part of Pashtun dominated region of Afghanistan, a region that has seen an ever-widening distance with the government. Now the fact that Hezb-i-Islami is going to play politics might work to the advantage of the government in terms of allowing to lure these people into the game for the next presidential elections due in 2019.
Hekmatyar has also talked of reuniting with other factions of Hezb-i-Islami, namely Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), which has been with the Afghan government since 2004, to form the country’s strongest political party. A reunited Hezb-i-Islami would play a significant role in the power struggles in the 2019 elections. In that case, the Pashtuns, who might throw their support behind Hezb-i-Islami, will appear as a strong ethnic group facing off other resentful ethnic groups in a bitterly polarized country. As such, whereas Hekmatyar’s support of a strong central government fits with Ghani’s, it will cause anger among other ethnic groups, namely Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.
Therefore, as much as Hekmatyar’s return seems to mean the arrival of an inflection point, it may also mean, in the long run, that fragile political balance among various ethnic groups has been compromised and that shadows of uncertainty are beginning to loom large over Afghanistan’s future.
On the broader geo-political spectrum, Hekmatyar’s return marks what has been largely called the US’ “Plan B” for Afghanistan. Just to remind ourselves, Hekmatyar was a designated international terrorist until February of this year when the UN Security Council lifted sanctions on him and paved the way for his larger-than-life return.
What could be that “Plan B”?
Part of the “Plan B” seems to be the imperative of counter-acting the self-styled Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), as it is known in Afghanistan.
It appears to be much more than a mere coincidence that the IS-K has established its tentacles in areas which have traditionally been the stronghold of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. These areas include: Kunar, Laghman, Jalalabad and Paktia.
The return of the Hekmatyar certainly implies that the US intends to use his clout, besides relying on its own troops as well as the half-trained and half-equipped Afghan security forces, to marginalize and eliminate the IS-K.
This is the clenching point for Pakistan as well, who fears that the scenario of civil war and total anarchy being loosed due to IS-K is unthinkable because it will spill over the Durand Line and could bring calamitous consequences for its own precarious security situation.
For the Trump administration, which is contemplating an increase of troops in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar also represents an opportunity to help them keep the Russians at bay in Afghanistan.
Being a known-jihadist and having fought against the Soviet Union during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, the US has a long history of co-operation with him and his party—something that the US now might be thinking of reviving against their “common enemy”, Russia, which is gearing to lay its own foot in Afghanistan to find a solution of the war that is already into its 16th year.
Needless to say, Russia had not nodded to the lifting of sanctions on Hekmatyar early in January. Now, Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul does not seem to have endeared him to Moscow as the mainstream Russian media has carried reports, in the past few days, emphasising his past as a “CIA-funded Mujahideen.”
While the US might be willing to use him as a “pawn” against Russia, it is not the Russians that should worry the Americans. The Taliban remain the most powerful force in Afghanistan and this fact saw another manifestation only a few days ago when they successfully captured the centre of Kunduz, marking a second such successful hold over the past 18 months.
The primary question, therefore, remains: will Hekmatyar be able to endear the Taliban to the Afghan government and help broker a peace deal?
The notion of peace in Afghanistan is as dubious and nebulous as the prospect of a dialogue between the contending parties. Were the Taliban to return, other ethnic groups will face even more marginalization in the system. Who, in that case, will hold the balance?
Only a commonly agreed political formula can do that, a formula that must cater for Afghanistan’s interests rather than seek to serve foreign powers’ agendas. Until this happens, peace is Afghanistan will remain elusive, just as the US remains elusive about ending its longest war.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. His areas of interest include politics of terrorism, global war on terror, ethno-national conflicts, foreign policies of major powers, application and consequences.