Islamabad’s overtures to non-Taliban groups count very little
In the last week of June, Pakistan convened a conference of prominent Afghan leaders in the hill resort of Murree. More than fifty Afghan dignitaries from all walks of life attended and among them was the controversial warlord, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar of Hizb-i-Islami.
As a country with close connections with all segments of Afghan society, the ostensible goal for Pakistan was to reach out to groups and factions other than the Taliban.
The conference was not expected to lay down a framework for an intra-Afghan dialogue but the deliberations centered on this theme and participants voiced their concerns over a continuing insecurity.
The charismatic Hikmatyar attracted the most attention. Not surprisingly, in his speech, he stressed on the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces and the need for Afghans to collectively find solutions to the long war.
The conference was an opportunity for Islamabad to respond to the oft-repeated criticism that Pakistan has relations (friendly or troubled) only with the Taliban. But those who assembled in Murree are no longer in the vanguard of any political faction or party and have somewhat been overtaken by the events of post-2001 Afghanistan.
From 1979-1989, Hikmatyar was undoubtedly a stalwart of the struggle against the Soviet occupation of his country. His party, the Hizb-i-Islami was one of the most potent militant outfits, or mujahideen, fighting against the Soviets and because of his contribution to the resistance, his party received a lion’s share of weapons and other resources provided by the US to fight the occupation.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the Mujahideen fought against the communist regime of Dr.Najibullah whose rule ended in 1992 as the mujahideen swept into Kabul and proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic State.
Islamabad’s initiative of inviting anti-Taliban leaders to a conference in Murree will not bring any tangible benefit in the context of finding a solution to the conflict.
Rustam Shah Mohammad
From 1992 to 1996, Hikmatyar’s party fought against rival warlords for control of Kabul—the bulk of the capital’s infrastructure was destroyed in the infighting amongst mujahideen groups. And in 1996, Kabul fell to the advancing Taliban movement’s volunteers.
At this time, Hikmatyar began to distance himself from the rapidly changing politico-military scenario as many of his erstwhile colleagues either abandoned him or joined the ranks of the Taliban. When the Taliban government collapsed in late 2001 and the US took control of the country, Hikmatyar chose to retreat and disappear from public view. He asserted then that he would not return to his country as long as there remained even a single foreign soldier on Afghan soil- a pledge he was to break when expediency prevailed. He did return to Afghanistan in 2017, after he signed an agreement with the Kabul government and reached an understanding with the US.
Going back on his word damaged his credentials as an Afghan leader beyond repair. During the mujahideen struggle against the Soviet intervention, Hikmatyar, as well as fighting against external forces, was also fighting against his political rivals. The underlying idea was to render ineffective or eliminate those who posed a challenge to his authority once the Soviets were defeated.
That reputation created huge suspicions and fear among many of his opponents.
Having remained in the wilderness for many long years, Hikmatyar is no longer looked upon as somebody who could unite a war-ravaged country. New forces have emerged since he left Afghanistan—Taliban, Daesh, Fidai Mahaz. In the new scheme of things, he is not in a position to play a significant role unless he is backed openly or covertly by either the regime in Kabul or the US. Chances of that happening are not bright, but the possibility cannot be totally ruled out given his readiness to embrace objective realities.
Hikmatyar is a skilful negotiator, a competent commander and at the same time a very ambitious politician. His party has ties with the Muslim brotherhood of Egypt and Jamat-i-Islami of Pakistan and he nurtures a dream of establishing an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Unluckily for him, that ‘mandate’ is now owned by the Taliban.
The reality is that the Taliban have fought relentlessly for 18 years against the world’s greatest war machine with no signs of fatigue or exhaustion. No other faction, party or group in Afghanistan can claim to have fought such an epic battle against an invader. That puts the Taliban way ahead of any other militant group, including Hikmatyar’s.
For now then, Hikmatyar will not appear to be in contention for any position of authority or importance unless there is a radical transformation of Afghanistan’s politico-military landscape.
Judged in this perspective, Islamabad’s initiative of inviting anti-Taliban leaders to a conference in Murree will not bring any tangible benefit in the context of finding a solution to the conflict. Bilateral cooperation and contacts, though useful, do not alter the current dynamics of a dangerous situation.
Islamabad must also realize that Taliban are speaking from a position of strength now that their legitimacy has been acknowledged by Russia, China and Iran, and all three countries are in formal contacts with the movement’s leaders. The situation is too complex and too grave for non-entities to play a role. The ground realities must be recognized: The Taliban matter and should be engaged. The old heavyweights had their time.