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By Imtiaz Gul

DAWN Mar 30, 2010

The idea of reconciliation is gradually picking up steam. President Hamid Karzai’s ‘preliminary talks’ with a delegation of the Hizb-i-Islami in Kabul recently threw some light on the efforts that have been going on behind the scenes for translating the idea into reality.

Qutbuddin Hilal, a former deputy prime minister and the current deputy of Hizb-i-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has taken the lead in opening up with the government. This has led to speculation as to whether this move by Karzai could deliver a blow to the insurgency currently raging in his country.

Known in the past as a radical Islamist force, the Hizb-i-Islami and its charismatic but wanted leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar know how and when to bend when it comes to issues of power or their share in it. That is why official confirmation of President Karzai’s meeting with Hilal and his delegation came as no surprise, and offers a clue to the reconciliation process ahead of the April 29 jirga in Kabul.

Compared to Mulla Omar’s Taliban or the Haqqani network, the Hizb-i-Islami enjoys a strategic advantage as far as the current political calculus is concerned; as many as 49 former leaders and activists currently sit in the Wolesi jirga, the Afghan legislature.

Some of them even occupy important posts in the government including in provinces. Those who know the Hizb-i-Islami had a hunch for quite some time that its followers might eventually play an important role whenever it came to political wheeling-dealing.

In fact Hekmatyar had won the approval of many in April 1990, when the then defence minister in Afghanistan, Gen Shahnawaz Tanai, had attempted an abortive coup against Dr Najibullah. Hekmatyar had claimed he was in an alliance with Gen Tanai. At the Hizb media office in Islamabad, Hekmatyar had boasted of a “final victory” very soon.

Only a few days after Najibullah fell from power, Hekmatyar and his Mujahideen comrades including Burhanuddin Rabbani and others arrived in Kabul at end of April 1992. What unfolded thereafter is a litany of death and destruction as Hekmatyar and Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud bombed each other, and reduced big parts of the capital to ruins. Hekmatyar had no inhibitions about joining a former colleague of Najibullah, Rashid Dostum, in his fight for the control of Kabul.

He also had no qualms about joining the Mulla Omar-led Taliban in the mid-1990s. This underscores the pragmatism of the Hizb leader, also adored by Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami. Moreover he maintained contacts with the Iranian government and enjoyed privileges as the “blue-eyed boy of the Pakistani establishment” for a long time.

An ethnic Pakhtun background had always made Hekmatyar and his like the automatic choice for Pakistan, which wanted a friendly government in Kabul. To the displeasure of Ahmed Shah Massoud, Hekmatyar received massive overt and covert funding from Pakistan and the US. He reportedly maintains a working relationship with segments of the Pakistani establishment, and this also means that he has been fighting more for political power than for 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, Hekmatyar has concentrated on the northeastern regions, battling Afghan and foreign forces.

As of now, the Hizb-i-Islami is a relatively weaker link in the tripodal insurgency in Afghanistan that comprises the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Hizb itself but politically does stand out as an older and much better organised party, with good intellectual strength compared to the other two.

If the talks with the Hizb-i-Islami make any headway that would mean in the short run:

a) the separation of the Hizb from the triangle of insurgency;

b) removal of the protective umbrella that the Hizb has so far provided to Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan;

c) creation of a substantial wedge between Al Qaeda and many of its 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 Mulla Omar, this would entail different long-term implications for the reconciliation process, with serious consequences — for Al Qaeda at least because the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen McChrystal, 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.

The Hizb seems to be tabling the same conditions as those of Mulla Omar: the formation of a transitional government from which a new president would be chosen and the immediate pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan are the two primary conditions, though none would be acceptable either to Karzai or to the US-led coalition.

It will, therefore, be interesting to see whether and how Hekmatyar and Mulla Omar, who remains the most vital link in the insurgency, give up their maximalist position in favour a middle ground for peacemaking. In that case the Hizb-i-Islami, one of the most organised political forces in Afghanistan, could become a major political force, a quasi bridge between the insurgents and the US-backed government in Kabul.

If the Hizb eventually joins the bandwagon, it would in the long run weaken the thus far tripodal insurgency; yet given Mulla Omar’s centrality to the Taliban movement, it would still be a challenge to reconcile all the components of the insurgency.

Pakistan’s old contacts with the Hizb-i-Islami would also be on trial because if it throws its weight behind Hekmatyar, it might annoy Mulla Omar, who too had enjoyed Islamabad’s largess for quite some time.

The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk