If there was one steadfast reliable friend of India in the neighbourhood, it is Afghanistan. But Afghan politician and former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s surprise offer of partnership with the Afghan Taliban will only strengthen China and Pakistan’s power play in Kabul. Pakistan will try its best to ensure that India is forced to roll back its presence in Afghanistan under a Taliban-heavy regime, and China would be more than willing to support this venture.
India’s main worry relates to complicated ground realities in Afghanistan that seem to be favouring Pakistan in its attempts to bring the Taliban back to the corridors of power in Kabul. India’s security environment could be substantially undermined if the new rulers in Kabul allow Pakistan to use Afghan territory for anti-India purposes. India’s approach should, therefore, evolve in line with the changing strategic environment. Despite pessimism in some quarters, New Delhi can still recover lost ground in Afghanistan. That makes it imperative to understand the Hekmatyar phenomenon in the evolving China-Pakistan nexus.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s anti-India stance
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic fundamentalism is as medieval as that of the Taliban’s. But it is his attempt to forge an alliance with the Taliban that should receive India’s immediate attention. Last month, Hekmatyar participated in a webinar on Kashmir, organised by Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan to mark the first anniversary of the revocation of Article 370. During this exchange, he warned that India should “learn a lesson from the Afghan jihad”. No doubt, insurgency in Kashmir has had an organic relationship with the Afghan jihad. His party, Hezb-i-Islami, is known to have provided considerable material and moral support to the Hizbul Mujahideen during the heydays of unrest in Kashmir.
In a recent party meeting in Kabul, Hekmatyar said that “China and Pakistan have a common and coordinated position on Afghanistan, not only do they support the peace process, rather they see it as beneficial to their regional interests, especially if it leads to a reduction in India’s presence in Afghanistan.” It does not require much genius to decode Hekmatyar’s changing political position because his utterances neatly reflect Pakistan’s unofficial plans and official narrative on both India and Afghanistan. These anti-India outbursts from Hekmatyar were soon followed by Pakistan’s propagandist criticism of India’s role in Afghanistan. During a recent panel discussion on India’s foreign policy, organised by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Islamabad, a top Pakistani bureaucrat stated the world has recognised Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process while India has always tried to “sabotage” and derail the peace process in Afghanistan.
The manner in which Hekmatyar has praised China and attempted to link it with Afghanistan is interesting, yet ominous. New Delhi is worried that the power vacuum in Afghanistan being created by America’s exit may be filled by China, whose aggression in Ladakh has already unnerved India. It needs to be noted that after India had firmly stood its ground in the Doklam military stand-off three years ago, backlash from China was sure to be swift and vicious. But the sudden eruption of military clashes in the Galwan valley and China’s subsequent refusal to restore the status-quo ante along the border indicate that India may have underestimated the ferocity of Chinese backlash.
Thus, India cannot downplay the geostrategic consequences of attempts being made by Rawalpindi’s Afghan proxies to involve Beijing in Afghan affairs. The possibility of a China-Pakistan nexus being extended to Afghanistan, in combination with the Taliban, is something that cannot be completely ruled out.
The Hekmatyar phenomenon
Indian diplomats are fully aware of the destructive potential of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his jihadi party. Of the seven main Afghan Mujahideen groups that fought against the Soviet Union from the safe havens in Pakistan, it was Hekmatyar who was the favourite of Pakistan’s security establishment. Pakistan had ensured that the bulk of money and arms from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia was received by Hezb-e-Islami, because Hekmatyar was the person through whom Pakistan wanted to operationalise its ‘strategic depth’ under a mujahideen regime in post-Soviet Afghanistan. However, as the Soviets departed and the Americans lost interest, Afghanistan became the battleground of warring mujahideen. During this phase, Hekmatyar faced fierce resistance from Ahmad Shah Massoud, India’s closest ally. When it later became clear that Hekmatyar was not capable of helping Pakistan achieve its designs, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) began to prop up another force – the Taliban. The rest is history. To cut the story short, Hekmatyar continued to fight against the Kabul government forces, until President Ashraf Ghani made peace with him in 2017, believing that the deal would set a precedent for the Taliban to follow. But once Hekmatyar had settled in Kabul, the government realised that it had committed a major political blunder. Since then, he has proved to be far more dangerous in a political avatar than he ever was militarily.
With this background in mind, Hekmatyar’s overture to the Taliban assumes huge significance. The Taliban has already dashed all hopes of a ceasefire, since that would give up its key leverage with Washington and Kabul. It has made it evidently clear that as long as “the real cause of war” — the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan — is not addressed, they are not interested in discussing a ceasefire with the Kabul government.
In simple words, continued violence enhances the Taliban’s bargaining power in intra-Afghan talks. But the issues are so complex that these talks are likely to drag on for months. And the Taliban has a vested interest in thwarting a ceasefire so that the insurgency does not lose momentum during this negotiation phase. Some of the Taliban fighters may join the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), if the Taliban leadership, which is in Doha for intra-Afgan talks, comes under pressure to make some compromises on the ‘Islamic system’.
With US President Donald Trump determined to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan at the earliest, more and more wily Afghan politicians, not known for their democratic credentials, may follow Hekmatyar’s footsteps if the war moves in the Taliban’s way. After all, it is not military force but defections that have played the most important role in the regime change in Afghanistan. As the Afghan people are getting ready for a positive change in their lives, Pakistan may have reactivated Hekmatyar’ jihadist DNA, formed during their cosy relationship during the Afghan jihad. India should be wary of these developments.
Way forward for India
The instinct to keep away from Afghanistan is understandable, given both the political appeal of this argument and the poor track record of Washington to punish Pakistan for its double-dealing in the fight against terrorism. Yet, this instinct neglects the fact that long-term Indian interests endure in Afghanistan, and are likely to persist as long as the China-Pakistan nexus is sustained by the anti-India strategic orientation. As strategic affairs analyst C. Raja Mohan recently argued, “China’s future role in Afghanistan, in partnership with Pakistan, could be quite significant and will be of some concern for India”, it will be risky for New Delhi to continue to avoid being drawn into Afghan political dynamics. Echoing him, Rakesh Sood, India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, also said that if India is keen “to be invited to the party, it must be prepared to get up and dance,” implying that New Delhi must engage with the Taliban if it wants its concerns addressed.
One would hope that Indian diplomacy, not lacking in dynamism, is adjusting fast to new realities and political alignments in Afghanistan, as reflected in the recent participation of India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, in the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks in Doha. With diplomatic signs indicating engagement with the Taliban, it is also time for India to build political constituencies in Afghanistan, particularly in the northern and western regions.
India’s foreign policymakers should debate what India’s engagement with the new power wielders and power brokers should look like in Kabul, not whether or not there should be one. However, it will be too early to predict whether Afghanistan will become the centre-stage of the India-Pakistan rivalry as the US prepares to leave the country.
The author is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.