Any which way one looks at it, Indian ambassador in Kabul Manpreet Vohra’s meeting with Mujahidden leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the latter’s residence on Thursday signifies a major foreign-policy initiative by New Delhi.

This could not have happened without instructions from the Union government. Credit must go to the powers that be in the Prime Minister’s Office for showing creative thinking in almost real time.

Why is India’s “Hekmatyar moment” so momentous?

This needs some explaining because it becomes one of those rare moments in diplomacy when the twilight sparkles with sunshine. To be sure, the meeting in Kabul is historic.

Of the “Peshawar Seven” – the main Afghan Mujahideen groups that battled the Soviet Union’s Red Army in the 1980s from sanctuaries in Pakistan – it was Hekmatyar who was the apple of the eye of Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq and the country’s “Islam Pasand” parties. The formidable head of the Afghan bureau of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in the early 1980s (and author of the classic work The Bear Trap), Brigadier Mohammad Yousuf, lay down without exception Zia’s law that the world – the Central Intelligence Agency and the Saudi sheikhs included – had to proceed through the “proper channel” in their dealings with Hekmatyar.

Hekmatyar was the fountainhead of the Afghan jihad and the future “Fateh Kabul” (conqueror of Kabul), in Zia-ul-Haq’s caculus, who offered the certainty of “strategic depth” for Pakistan under any future mujahideen dispensation. Yousuf ensured that the bulk of the arms and money received from the Central Intelligence Agency and the sheikhs went to Hekmatyar’s group Hezb-e-Islami.

Either Hekmatyar was told or he instinctively sensed the red line that the Indians were, of course, persona non grata. At any rate, he kept aloof from Indian diplomats for decades. Therefore, it is interesting that he has now made an exception for Vohra in broad daylight. Why did he do that?

Warlord’s second coming

Quite obviously, it has everything to do with the complex set of circumstances surrounding Hekmatyar’s “second coming” in Kabul in April after two decades underground. Succinctly put, Hekmatyar is in transition. He is crossing the river from one bank to another – from politics of violence to the volatile life of a politician. History shows that such transitions are difficult but manageable. A famous example in somewhat analogous conditions would be that of Menachem Begin, who led the Zionist militant group Irgun in the 1947-1948 civil war in Mandatory Palestine (territory comprising present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jordan that was placed under British administration from 1920 to 1948) and went on to became the prime minister of Israel in 1977.

In this pilgrim’s progress, Hekmatyar must have a politician’s DNA where no one is cast in an enemy image and old prejudices and red lines give way to seamless pragmatism.

In fact, in the Kabul bazaar, he probably gained greater legitimacy when he was photographed sitting in front of a fruit bowl, engrossed in conversation with the Indian ambassador. (Interestingly, we released the photograph, testifying to Afghans – and, perhaps, also to Pakistan – that we have no clandestine agenda in establishing cordial ties with Hekmatyar.)

Does the Vohra-Hekmatyar meeting surprise Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence? I doubt it. As sure as night follows day, the Inter-Services Intelligence must be monitoring Hekmatyar’s daily activities in Kabul. Make no mistake, this is a high-stakes game involving decades of effort and deploying vast resources coming to fruition, finally.

There was immaculate timing in the scheduling of Hekmaytar’s return to Kabul. Consider the factors at work:

  • The Afghan National Unity Government is unravelling and the post-Ashraf Ghani phase is about to begin in the highly fragmented political scene.
  • The security situation is inexorably turning to the advantage of the Taliban.
  • Washington understands that the war cannot be won and a settlement will be necessary.
  • Afghanistan desperately needs a capable figure who can hold the reins of power and has the credentials to both reconcile with the Taliban and unify the strategic Pashtun heartland.
  • The unifying figure in Kabul should also enjoy the confidence of neighbouring countries (Pakistan and Iran, in particular), apart from being a “known devil” for the international community (read the United States.)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (centre), with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left), at a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul on May 4. (Credit: Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

In the prevailing situation, no Afghan can foot the bill as Hekmatyar can. Arguably, the above calculus is tailor-made for him. Importantly, he walks in from the cold on the basis of a US-Pakistani congruence and with Iran’s tacit acquiescence.

The meeting point for these three countries is that the stabilisation of Afghanistan is an imperative need for all of them – even if for reasons of self-interest.

Suffice it to say, if and when the next Afghan presidential election is held, Hekmatyar has excellent prospects to emerge victorious.

Thus, it is eminently sensible that Indian diplomacy towards Afghanistan is showing signs of being forward-looking and is not lacking in dynamism and new thinking to adjust to new realities and political alignments.

But the big question is: is that the story – and the whole story?

Afghanistan and India-Pakistan ties

The heart of the matter is that Afghanistan has become the centre-stage of the India-Pakistan rivalry. The saga of Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former Indian Navy officer now on death row in Pakistan on espionage charges, highlights it. As the April mission to the region by US National Security Advisor HR McMinder underscores, unless the Gordian knot of India-Pakistan rivalry is cut and Afghanistan is set free as a neutral state, a settlement in the Hindu Kush will remain elusive.

In sum, the two-decade-old Indian policy to open a “second front” against Pakistan to counter its asymmetrical war in Jammu and Kashmir has peaked, and from now onwards, the law of diminishing returns will be at work.

The Donald Trump administration is juggling a variety of factors but, centrally, their worry is that the dividing line between irredentist forces – the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State, in particular – has become very thin or is practically non-existent today.

From India’s perspective, therefore, dexterity in diplomacy lies in seizing the present defining moment to shift the narrative to its advantage. Or, at the minimum, cut the losses. This is a game of smoke and mirrors and empirical evidence may be lacking. But the bottom line is that if gone about imaginatively, our overture to Hekmatyar can also be a confidence-building measure vis-à-vis Pakistan – something like strangers in the night exchanging glances, as in the old Frank Sinatra song.

If so, it could have a positive fallout on the highly combustible Jadhav case as well, which is putting almost intolerable strains on India-Pakistan relations and whose leitmotif Pakistan traces to the instability in Balochistan and Afghanistan.

Kulbhushan Jadhav case

Plainly speaking, what is it that the Pakistani military hopes to gain from Jadhav’s execution? The execution will be an act of malignity that will earn Pakistan nothing but ill-will from India and, more importantly, will slam the door shut on any form of dialogue between the two countries for a very long time to come.

Is that what Pakistan wants?

I do not subscribe to the stereotyped notions among sections of opinion in India and among interest groups that thrive on India-Pakistan tensions regarding the DNA of the Pakistani military leadership. The Pakistani generals indeed take the business of war seriously and are far from reckless. Therefore, this is an opportune moment for Pakistan to engage with India more optimally.

The more I think about Jadhav, it is the analogy of the card game that comes to mind. A trump card signifies options, but once it is played, the options cease to be. Put differently, it must be played for maximum returns. Or else, the player is a dilettante.

Without doubt, Pakistan seeks dialogue with India. The expectation in Pakistan was that once the Uttar Pradesh election got over in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would resume political contacts. But for a variety of reasons that one does not need to go into here – especially in the backdrop of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir – India could not engage with Pakistan.

From the Pakistani perspective, therefore, the Jadhav case would present itself as a desirable scenario, since it opens a door that has never been opened before – except fleetingly once, perhaps, by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he agreed with his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt in July 2009 to discuss Balochistan, but was hastily slammed shut when the Bharatiya Janata Party, then in the Opposition, alleged that “waters of the seven seas will not be able to wash the shame” if India sat down with Pakistan to discuss mutual concerns over terrorism.

Significantly, last Tuesday, when asked about the Jadhav case at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the US State Department spokesman commented in Washington that the matter is best handled by India and Pakistan through “direct dialogue” and “practical cooperation”. The implications of this stance are quite stunning, to say the least.

On the other hand, it is useful to take note that an editorial on the Jadhav case in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn had the following to say:

“Pakistan must proceed very carefully with a resolution of the Jadhav affair domestically. This paper opposes the death penalty in all instances and does so in this case too. Equally troubling, however, is the opacity with which the case has been handled... There are also regional and international dimensions to be considered... Perhaps the civilian court route ought to be considered by the state, with suitable accommodations made to shield secret information. The case of Jadhav needs to be handled sensibly and sensitively.”

Policymakers in Delhi must note very carefully all these nuances, especially in the Pakistani opinion.

Similarly, although footfalls echo in memory, it is entirely conceivable that Pakistan, too, would analyse the symbolism in Delhi’s open recognition (and acceptance) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as a legitimate player in Afghan mainstream politics, his core mission to preserve Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan notwithstanding.