There is growing uneasiness in the immediate neighbourhood of Afghanistan and beyond owing to particularly two disturbing developments in the war-torn country. With notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmayar, head of the dreaded Hizb-e-Islami, about to join the Afghanistan government, signals are being received that the West Asia-based Islamic State (IS) may step up its activities in the Af-Pak area through its local affiliate, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). The emerging scenario calls for the immediate creation of a mechanism to effectively handle the threat. Russia seems to be more worried than other countries as it is feared that once the IS succeeds in enlarging its base in Afghanistan, it can easily spread its tentacles in the Central Asian countries, posing a serious security challenge for Russia.
Though the IS appears to be getting weakened in the land of its birth with some major reverses suffered in Syria during the recent past, its capacity to foment trouble in Afghanistan should not be underestimated. There is need for keeping close watch on its activities in the region, particularly when Hekmatyar, a former Al-Qaida ally, will be a part of the government in Kabul. Afghanistan can turn out to be a fertile ground for the IS with fast increasing frustration among the youth due to the failure of the Ashraf Ghani government to revive economic activity on a large scale with a view to providing enough employment opportunities.
The international community appears to be no longer interested in promoting stability in Afghanistan as much as it was in the past. The situation is likely to get worse with the Donald Trump Administration in the US being the least serious about fulfilling its international obligations because of its inward-looking policy of “America First”.
Keeping in view this disquieting state of affairs, any regional initiative to normalise the situation in that land-locked country must be welcomed. A Russia-led initiative with the cooperation of India, China, Iran and Pakistan has emerged as a new move after the Heart of Asia conferences held for establishing lasting peace in Afghanistan.
However, the intentions of the participating countries must never be doubtful. Aghanistan has provided proof that it does not feel comfortable with Pakistan’s intentions, which got exposed when President Ghani rejected Islamabad’s aid offer of $5 million during the recent Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar. Ghani’s terse comment made openly on the occasion was that the funds offered by Islamabad could be better utilised for containing terrorist outfits operating from territories under Pakistan’s control. There was clear indication that Islamabad’s efforts to influence the course of events in Afghanistan by using militant outfits, particularly some Taliban factions, would no longer be tolerated. Pakistan was bluntly told that financial aid for peace and clandestine backing of terrorist outfits could not go together.
President Ghani’s dislike for Pakistan, however, is a new development. He made a major mistake when some time back he started cultivating friendship with the Pakistan military so that Kabul could be helped by Islamabad in handling Pakistan’s militant allies like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Ghani believed that it would be easier to reach a peace agreement with Hekmatyar with Pakistan’s backing for providing the Hizb-e-Islami leader an opportunity to join the Afghanistan government and shun the path of violence in the larger interest of their country. However, the talks with the warlord got snapped in the wake of reports that the Taliban movement’s founder Mullah Omer was dead. The peace talks were revived after a long gap, leading to the signing of an agreement between the two sides in September 2016.
The September accord resulted in the removal of the tag of “a global terrorist” given to Hekmatyar by the UN in 2003. The Butcher of Kabul, now treated as a harbinger of peace, is set to be given some important role in the National Unity Government in Afghanistan soon. This was promised to him during the successful talks between his representatives and those of President Ghani. As it appears today, both sides will be the gainers once Hekmatyar finally joins the government. The warlord will get an opportunity to reunite with his former party colleagues who parted company with him when they were offered plum positions in the Afghanistan government. They reportedly formed their own factions to make use of the opportunity that came their way, but they still remain loyal to the man who was once their guide and benefactor. However, there is no guarantee that these ex-Hizb-e-Islami activists will oblige Hekmatyar to get associated with him again, though they may support him on various issues because of the similarity of their views.
The Afghanistan government will be gaining by way of a sharp decline in incidents of violence. Despite reduction in the number of districts where his writ still runs, Hekmatyar’s faction remains one of the powerful groups in many districts in Afghanistan because of various factors. He commands respect in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas in Pakistan too. After all, his faction is among the groups which were on the forefront of the fight in the 1980s to end the Soviet control of Afghanistan when Afghan communists, trained in the erstwhile Soviet Union, had captured power in Kabul. Hekmatyar was offered the Prime Minister’s post in 1992 when a government was formed with Burhanuddin Rabbani as its executive head after the defeat of the then Soviet Union-backed regime of Najibullah. He then enjoyed US and Pakistan’s support and had grown as one of the most powerful mujahideen commanders. He declined the offer as he had his eyes fixed on the post of President. His behaviour led to the outbreak of the second phase of the civil war, resulting in the formation of the Pakistan-backed Taliban government in 1996.
Whatever the expectations of President Ghani, Hekmatyar, a cunning but frustrated warlord, is not a person to be trusted. Once he gets inducted into the government, he may try to manipulate the system to realise his old ambition. It would be easier for him to indulge in this adventure if the US totally withdraws from the Afghan front, not unthinkable in view of the short-sighted policies of President Trump. But that will amount to fuelling further instability in the war-ravaged country, threatening peace in South Asia and Central Asia. The worries expressed by countries in the region, particularly India and Russia, should not be ignored. A powerful regional mechanism must be created to safeguard peace and stability in Afghanistan.