The news on President Hamid Karzai’s “preliminary talks” with a delegation of the Hizb-i-Islami (March 22nd) , should be a welcome development. The Hezb in fact represents an erst-while radical Islamist force, which also knows how and when to bend when it comes to talking power or the share in it. Official sources announced that President Karzai met with Qutbuddin Helal, a former deputy prime minister and the current deputy of Mr. Hekmetyar.
Karzai’s choice of Hizb-i-Islami ahead of the reconciliation process through the April 29 Jirga in Kabul had been a foregone conclusion. As many as 49 former Hizb-i-Islami leaders and activists, currently sit in the Woolasi Jirga – Afghanistan’s National Assembly. Some of them even occupy important posts in the government and some in provinces. Those who know the Hezb-I-Islami (akin to Pakistan’s Jamat-e-Islami which too is a follower of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement that had originated in Egypt and is carried currently by Dr.Ayman al Zawahiri) had a hunch for quite some time that the Hezb followers might eventually play an important role whenever it came to political wheeling-dealing.
Its charismatic but wanted leader Gulbadin Hekmetyar had charmed a lot of people in April 1990, when the then defense minister Shahnawaz Tanai, had joined him in an abortive coup against Dr.Najibullah. At the Hezb media office in the F-6/1 sector of Islamabad, Hekmetyar had boasted that the “final victory “ was just a few hours away. As the events had then showed, that hour of glory never embraced Hekmetyar.
After the fall of Najibullah and entering into Chaharaasiab south of Kabul exactly two years later, Hekmetyar went on to join another socialist, Gen.Rashid Dostum, to take on mujahideen comrades Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood, until he joined the Mulla Omar-led Taliban. He also had been in regular contacts with Tehran, and had also enjoyed huge privileges once as the “blue-eyed boy of the Pakistani establishment.”
Being an ethnic Pashtoon, Hekmetyar and the likes of him had always been an automatic choice for Pakistan, which had always craved for a friendly government in Kabul. Hekmetyar has reportedly maintained a working relationship with segments of the Pakistani establishment, and this also means that he has been fighting more for political power than an ideology embedded in Islam.
Known as a thoroughly pragmatic warlord, and out of power parleys since the Taliban regime sidelined him and Karzai declined to talk to him all these years, Hekmetyar concentrated on the northeastern regions, battling Afghan and foreign forces.
Until now, Hezbe Islami has been part of the tripodal insurgency in Afghanistan that comprises the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Hezb itself, which has largely focused in northeastern Afghanistan.
If the talks with the Hezbe Islami make any headway, that would mean in the short run
a) diffusion of the insurgency (separation of Hezb from the triangle of insurgency),
b) removal of the protective umbrella that the Hezb has sofar provided to al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, and
c) creation of a substantial wedge between al Qaeda and many of its those local supporters who might also want to board the power bandwagon ahead of the peace Jirga in April.
But if these “preliminary contacts” are taking place with the consent of Mullah Omar, the long-term implications would of course be different, with severe consequences – for al Qaeda at least because the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen.McCrystal and other US military officials have also been talking of separating al Qaeda from the Afghan combatants as part of their latest counter-insurgency effort.
As of now, the Hezb seems to be touting the same conditions as put by Mullah Omar; it is proposing the formation of a transitional government from which a new president would be chosen. They are all seeking the removal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Both conditions almost certainly not unacceptable either to Karzai or to the US-led Coalition.
Will be interesting to see as to whether Hekmetyar and Mulla Omar, who would remain the most vital link the Afghan insurgency, drop the pullout of foreign forces as a precondition altogether.
Just like the Jamaate Islami of Pakistan, the Hezbe Islami remains one of the more organized political forces in a country that is still reeling under the consequences of three decades of war and still lacks organized political parties, Hezbe Islami could become a major political force again.
If the Hezb eventually joins the bandwagon, it would in the long run weaken the thus far tripodal insurgency, yet given Mullah Omar’s centrality to the Taliban movement, it would still be a challenge to reconcile all the components of the insurgency.