14 February 2012
[My commentary published today on Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel]
While HIG’s forces are fewer than they were in the 1980s when its leader and founder, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was America’s favorite anti-Soviet mujahed, HIG has attacked NATO forces for years with a robust insurgent and criminal syndicate throughout northern and eastern Afghanistan, where I served as a civilian advisor to NATO forces in Laghman and Nuristan in 2011. Among other attacks, HIG organized an enormous 2009 siege on an American base in Kamdesh, Nuristan in which 8 U.S. soldiers were killed, and they participated in a massacre of 10 international aid workers in Badakhshan Province in 2010.
First, the most combustible element to the currently projected negotiations is the Taliban’s reluctance to sit down with the ‘puppet’ Afghan government and its insistence on dealing mainly with NATO. That Kabul is being indirectly benched for these talks might compel Karzai to scuttle the efforts if he feels they are undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government, no matter the fallout. In fact, Karzai sent one such warning shot across Washington’s bow by unilaterally announcing its own venue in Saudi Arabia for Kabul’s negotiations with the Taliban, a claim denied by the Taliban’s Quetta Shura two days later.
Karzai’s gamesmanship aside, for these negotiations to get off the ground, the Afghan president needs concrete signs (not just words) indicating that Kabul will be at the center of these negotiations. So far, no signs have been forthcoming, but there may be another way to build those signs artificially.
Unlike the Taliban, HIG is eager to talk to the Afghan government, which means any talks with HIG will put Karzai front and center, where he belongs and prefers to be. Rather than fabricate a story about Kabul talking with the Taliban directly, Karzai can play up his government’s genuine and nurtured access to HIG. Highly publicized HIG negotiations may give Karzai enough negotiating legitimacy to make up for its supposed absence in talks with the Taliban.
Second, while HIG and the Taliban cooperate as often as they clash, the two groups are currently competing for NATO concessions. As the Taliban began pursuing the possibility of talks in earnest in early 2011, HIG followed shortly thereafter by meeting with then-ISAF Commander General David Petraeus in July 2011 for exploratory talks; then, when it became clear that the Taliban would likely go one step further and take the political risk of dropping its long-standing precondition to negotiations–that foreign forces withdraw before talks begin–HIG beat the Taliban to the punch and announced its policy shift in October 2011, though to little fanfare. Four months later, the Taliban likewise officially agreed to talk without preconditions, though it is unlikely that the Taliban was influenced by HIG’s announcement. And now, with the Taliban receiving so much attention over its Qatar office, Hekmatyar has become insistent that whatever happens in Doha is sure to fail as long as it excludes the relevant parties (read: Hekmatyar). Such competition for attention is favorable for the West and can be powerfully leveraged.
Specifically, it is normal for parties in conflicts like these to renege on certain principles or grandstand for their respective constituencies during negotiations, and when either HIG or the Taliban indulge in such practices, NATO and Kabul will be in a position to play each insurgent group off of the other–extending or withholding concessions for one group to make a point to the other–and ultimately secure a better outcome and on a better timetable than if NATO/Kabul negotiated with one adversary alone.
Third, while HIG and the Taliban share similar ideologies and ambitions, the emphasis of their demands is not the same because HIG has a tremendous stake in the current Afghan government. Over the years, various HIG factions have peeled away from Hekmatyar and formed non-violent political wings that now comprise a sizeable presence in the Afghan Parliament, in Kabul’s various ministries, and in provincial offices throughout the country. The current Minister of Economy, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, is a member of Hezb-e Islami and has facilitated several rounds of talks between the militant wing of HIG and the Afghan government. Granted, like the Taliban, Hekmatyar calls Kabul a ‘puppet,’ but tellingly, his son-in-law is on a PR blitz indirectly demonstrating HIG’s reliance on the Afghan government.
HIG, then, is making a play to be the more moderate insurgent group in negotiations, and this contrasting platform will be equally useful in a dual track model. If insurgents’ moderate demands are given more attention and credibility, they will draw more proponents and momentum. HIG’s demand to date is the withdrawal of foreign forces (a demand NATO intends to mostly fulfill anyway), whereas the Taliban will surely want much larger concessions to include changes to the Afghan government or constitution. Meanwhile, as the Taliban continues to see that HIG is able to negotiate directly with Kabul without sullying its own reputation, the Taliban is likely to follow suit in Qatar and elsewhere, as following a controversial trail is always easier than blazing it.
Again, the Quetta Shura is significantly more powerful than HIG, certainly in the heavily contested south. But parity is not required to successfully alter the negotiating calculus of the Taliban. Spoilers are never as powerful as the parties whose plans they hope to spoil. And given Hekmatyar’s selfish streak, he would have no qualms obstructing Taliban plans if he sees a myopic gain in it for himself, as he has done at the tactical level on the battlefield for years.
To be sure, there is nothing intrinsic to HIG that the Taliban envies or has a history of following; this strategy would actually create such a dynamic, where instead of competing merely for ISI funding, each faction would also vie for NATO/Kabul attention and concessions, thus precluding the Taliban from monopolizing the negotiations and allowing the West to drive a harder bargain. Granted, by this logic, bringing the third and most proficient insurgent group, the Haqqani Network, to the negotiating table would be favorable as well. Yet for various reasons (including Haqqani’s particularly strong ties to the ISI and al-Qaeda), their overtures for a political settlement have been less apparent and convincing.
True, the sincerity of HIG and the Taliban is likewise highly questionable, as there is evidence to suggest that both are hungry for free concessions and are playing for time. With that in mind, however, if negotiating a political settlement with Afghan insurgents is the U.S. policy of choice, then incorporating HIG into that framework on a near equal footing with the Taliban would serve Kabul and Washington well.
Every negotiator has a toolbox of methods and angles for success, and while having multiple adversaries with competing agendas breeds more wildcards, it also generates more room for creative maneuvering. Complex conflicts require complex solutions, and we should not shy away from them.