The Quetta Shura moving on Hekmatyar's turf and demanding HIG members swear fealty to Mullah Omar may be simple opportunistic banditry brought on by recent management reshuffles.
On the other hand about a month ago Hekmatyar was offering (not very good) terms to Kabul. His son was off in the Maldives for talks earlier this year. For nearly half a century Hekmatyar has been notably agile in his loyalties even for an Pashtun warlord. The ISI have also scooped up senior figures who had a liaison role between HIG and the Quetta Shura, this was always an uncomfortable alliance of old enemies steeped in atrocity. The recent HIG-Taliban tussle may not be unconnected with their alliance crumbling.
Hekmatyar has flirted with peace talks for years, but itâs clear that both sides have a keener interest than before. âItâs gotten considerably more serious than it was even a year ago,â says Candace Rondeaux, a Kabul-based analyst for The International Crisis Group. Even though the State Department has officially designates Hekmatyar a wanted terrorist, last April, a Hekmatyar emissary met with an aide to Richard Holbrooke, Obamaâs point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In January, Hekmatyarâs son attended unofficial reconciliation talks in the Maldives with a group of Afghan legislators.
A deal with Hekmatyar could give Obamaâs prospects in Afghanistan a huge boost. Even now, American troops are hard-pressed to pacify southern Afghanistan, and the United States can ill afford to see the north slip any further into chaos. Disarming Hekmatyarâs fighters, sometimes estimated to number in the thousands, would be a major strategic boost. And, if a hardened anti-American warlord like Hekmatyar were to renounce violence, that could set an example for his Pashtun admirers throughout the region.
What does he want? Hekmatyar insists that foreign troops must leave Afghanistan within 18 months. But he may be flexible if it means getting a taste of power. It helps that Hekmatyar already has a toe in politics: HIGâs nonviolent political arm--which claims not to take cues from Hekmatyar, though few believe it--already holds 19 of 246 seats in the Afghan parliament, and the countryâs economic minister is a member. Hekmatyar recently asserted that 70 percent of Afghans support his party. Thatâs doubtful; but the claim was a sign that the warlord may still cling to his dream of ruling Afghanistan. (A case in point: Last year, a reputed plan that would have granted Hekmatyarâs party more control of the government but exiled him to Saudi Arabia for three years went nowhere.) It also helps that, after 30 years of fighting, Hekmatyar may simply be tiring of jihad. âI have dedicated my whole life to struggle,â he wrote in a spring 2008 letter to Karzai offering to talk, âbut I am old.â
Still, cutting a deal with Hekmatyar that grants him legitimized power could amount to a horrendous moral compromise. The Afghan people remember well the blood on Hekmatyarâs hands. âIn the urban part of the civil society, it will be like a bomb that will destroy the image of the government,â says Riccardo Redaelli, an Italian academic who studies Afghan politics. Nor is empowering a man who advocates strict Islamic law likely to play well in the United States. âHekmatyar is a pretty difficult character to sell to the American people,â says Riedel.
But these are desperate times. Hamid Karzai is embattled, paranoid, and desperate to shore up his political base. Barack Obama, meanwhile, seems less interested in the political composition of Afghanistan than in reducing violence to a level that will allow for a U.S. withdrawal. âAt the end of the day, weâll take what we can get,â says Riedel. The engineer was right to flatter himself.
It would be interesting to know where the ISI was putting its money in this, it'll be a spread bet. Hekmatyar is an old once favored asset but was ruthlessly dropped in favor of the Taliban however as noted above he already has some political leverage in Kabul. The ISI have had the Quetta Shura in their pocket for some time but there are signs they have grown uncomfortable under the Punjabi yoke. Neither are as reliable an instrument as the brutally effective Haqqini network or Lashkar-e-Taiba for that matter.
My guess is it is Hekmatyar who has gone off reservation aiming for a prime spot at the trough in Kabul after DC draws down. Beware of an old man in hurry.