By Shazar Shafqat
Is this a time for jubilation, apprehension or assorted thoughts? It depends on how you look at it. Whatever the case, it is surely going to be a topsy-turvy ride.
There’s finally something to cheer for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He, at last, seems to have the last laugh. He’s been envisioning negotiations with the insurgent outfits in Afghanistan for long and the time may finally have come. Last week, the UN Security Council lifted the sanctions against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA).
The political astuteness and level of perspicacity that the Afghan government is going to display will determine the future outcome. Will these latest turn of events be the precursor for change in Afghanistan? Can this move serve as a curtain-raiser for a peaceful bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Will the militants be allowed to come into the national foray? And will it be prudent enough to do so, anyway? Any attempt to dig deep and discover what transpired in the past might not help in providing answers to these questions. It is time to delve into what lies in the future.
First, there might be no backing off this time around. Hekmatyar’s decision to reach an agreement with Kabul may serve as a vestibule of peace deals in the region. The HIA chief and the former prime minister has always been an influential figure and, of late, has burnished his credentials as a peacemaker. The discord between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah continues to hog the limelight.
At this stage, it remains to be seen how both the stalwarts of the Afghan government will work this one out. However, there is also a downside to the recent brouhaha: if the government fails to implement the agreement in its entirety, the backlash could be as severe as it can get. As a result, the divisions within the central government in Afghanistan on the peace deal can alter the security apparatus drastically. The ramifications could therefore be devastating.
Second, a slight dissemination of the pact’s terms could come in handy in setting the course for the future. As per the agreement, Hekmatyar and his commanders will have a guaranteed role and a formidable say in government affairs. The dynamics have yet to be determined. At this point in time, establishing these dynamics appears a long shot. The pusillanimity espoused by the Afghan government and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the premier intelligence agency, towards the militant outfit can result in the abatement of the conflict with the HIA.
However, there is a twist in the tale: Amrullah Saleh, the former head of the NDS and an influential figure in the country, has shown a perpetual aversion to hold talks with the militants, which could rarefy the situation even more. The Taliban, on the other hand, will continue to cherish the faultlines.
Third, the Wilayat Khorasan, the seldom talked about affiliate of Daesh’s in the region, might also rears its head. Its proponents may have been in hiding for a long time, but we cannot rule out the group’s reincarnation just yet. When the IS allegedly kidnapped 12 religious leaders from Nangarhar, Afghanistan on January 16, the country was already seething with terrorist activities. The emergence of the outfit therefore went largely unnoticed.
The Afghan Taliban have, historically, been pitched against the IS fighters in, primarily, the Helmand region. The Wilayat Khorasan has 3,000 foot soldiers fighting in the region. Isis may be on the retreat in Syria and the Levant, but its reemergence in Afghanistan can turn the worst of the nightmares into reality. To put it in simple terms, there is something being concocted by the Wilayat in Afghanistan and the authorities need to watch out.
Fourth, the Pakistan conundrum cannot be ignored. To make peace or employ virulent rhetoric against its neighbour is the question that has repeatedly baffled the Afghan government. To the surprise of many, it has been able to engage in both. Hekmatyar has had strong ties with Pakistan’s establishment and if the former stalwart of the Afghan jihad can manage to make his way into the Afghan government, then the Pak-Afghan bonhomie should definitely be on the cards. If something goes wrong, the usual blame game would take the centre-stage. We can rest assured that either of the two options are going to transpire – if it wasn’t already all too easy to decipher.
Fifth, there appears to be considerable interest from China in Afghanistan and the peace deal. China is on a mission to fix the chaos in the countries where it has strategic interests. If it can do the needful in the Middle East, then China would not want a mess in its backyard in 2017. The threat posed by the Uighurs, the Belt and Road Initiative, the $800 million China-Central Asia gas pipeline, and other massive investments in Greater Central Asia are some of the key reasons why China wants peace and stability to be maintained in Afghanistan.
China is not asleep. Neither would it let these projects be mired in controversy or conflicts. China – considering its massive clout in the region – will not allow the extremist elements to run the show in Afghanistan. Takeaway: we shouldn’t be surprised if China announces an investment plan in Afghanistan just to assuage the dissidents within the government, particularly those running private firms.
The sixth factor to consider about Afghanistan’s future is, perhaps, the most interesting one – even though it may be the most obvious. With President Trump at the helm, Afghanistan is likely to be one of the countries where he will contemplate upping the ante. He already fancies his chances. Hekmatyar and his men joining the government wouldn’t please the US president. Don’t be surprised if Trump goes on to mention the staunch resistance that the HIA had to offer to the comrades of the Charlie Wilson War. One thing is for sure: Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan’s decision to join the ranks of the government and the security apparatus of Afghanistan wouldn’t go down well with the new US president.
Can we then assume that the US and China are once again at a crossroads in Afghanistan?