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Delhi sups with an old foe

- Talks with Afghan warlord signal shift

Hekmatyar (right) with ambassador Vohra

New Delhi, May 19: India has opened talks with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a long-time enemy of New Delhi and close ally of Pakistan, marking a dramatic break in its policy towards Kabul.

India's ambassador in Kabul, Manpreet Vohra, met the 69-year-old Hekmatyar yesterday, two weeks after the man once dubbed the "butcher of Kabul" returned to the Afghan capital under a deal with President Ashraf Ghani.

Hekmatyar, the go-to man for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the CIA-backed mujahideen war against the Soviet Union, shares three decades of hostility with India.

Ghani's deal with Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami has widely been interpreted as an act of desperation aimed at countering the Taliban's expanding territorial control over Afghanistan following a series of military successes for the militia.

But the return to Kabul of Hekmatyar, who was believed to have hidden in Pakistan for most of the past two decades, is also expected to strengthen Islamabad's influence against Ghani, whose government has publicly criticised ISI support to groups like the Taliban.

Since the Taliban's defeat in 2001, India has focused on consolidating elected governments in Kabul. It has steered clear of any signalling that could strengthen alternative power centres. Officially, that remains India's position.

But India is increasingly concerned over the stability of the Ghani government. Senior officials told The Telegraph that the meeting with Hekmatyar was aimed at building a channel of communication India may need in the future.

The Indian embassy today released images of the meeting between Vohra and Hekmatyar, suggesting a readiness to telegraph its jockeying.

"Gulbuddin Hekmatyar thanked India's assistance for the development of Afghanistan," the Indian embassy in Kabul said in a tweet with the images of the meeting. "He praised India for large infrastructure projects like Salma Dam."

Careful to continue to demonstrate support for the Afghan government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wished Ghani on his birthday, drawing gratitude from the recipient.

" Bahut dhanyavaad, mere dost (Thanks a lot, my friend)," Ghani wrote back in the Twitter exchange. "Sending our warm greetings and best wishes to you and our Indian friends."

Hekmatyar's deal and return to Kabul coincide with instability and infighting within the National Unity Government of Afghanistan, between Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah.

Despite losing a chunk of its senior leadership, the Taliban today holds more territory than it did at the peak of its resistance to US-led forces under Ghani's predecessor Hamid Karzai.

In Afghanistan's Khorasan province, the Islamic State too has made significant gains, worrying both the US and Russia.

Moscow has even deepened ties with the Taliban - a militia whose leaders were at the forefront of the mujahideen that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan - to contain the expansion of the IS, upsetting India.

Russia has argued that while the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, retains its desire to control Afghanistan, it has never had expansionist ambitions beyond the country, unlike the IS.

For India, negotiating with Hekmatyar is not very different from Russia talking with the Taliban.

Through the late 1980s, Hekmatyar was the ISI's warlord of choice in Afghanistan. When the CIA, torn between funding Ahmed Shah Massoud and Hekmatyar - the two leaders the US viewed as the most effective against the Soviet Union - Pakistan, which did not trust Massoud, repeatedly leaned on Washington to pick Hekmatyar.

America's dilemma, Massoud's pleas to the CIA for support, Pakistan's insistence on Hekmatyar, and the CIA's eventual decision to go with the ISI's recommendation are captured in detail in Steve Coll's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Ghost Wars.

India's refusal to condemn the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or to negotiate with the mujahideen for cooperation till the collapse of the regime of Moscow-backed President Mohammad Najibullah upset Hekmatyar and other militia leaders.

At the time, New Delhi was trying to convince exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah to return as the nominal head of a coalition of groups, including Massoud, Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani.

"The Indian government is making a mistake by siding with the aggressor (the Soviet Union) instead of supporting the Afghan nation," Hekmatyar had said in a 1988 interview to India Today magazine.

The fall of the Najibullah government in 1992 sparked a four-year civil war between various factions that would at different times tactically align against other warlords they perceived as common threats, only to split months later and resume fighting.

Hekmatyar was twice Prime Minister as part of these deals but remained supportive of Pakistan, and opposed to India.

During the civil war, Hekmatyar's men are accusing of having killed thousands in Kabul - memories that make him unpopular to this day among sections of the city's population.

When the Taliban emerged as Pakistan's preferred force to rule Afghanistan and took over in 1996, India closed down its embassy in Kabul. Hekmatyar tried working with the Taliban but fled to Iran in 1997 and to Pakistan after 2001, from where he renewed his alliance with the Taliban against invading US troops following the September 11 attacks.

By 2003, the US and the UN had listed Hekmatyar as a global terrorist and the Hezb-e-Islami as a terrorist organisation. But the warlord survived the spray of drone attacks the US used in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 2016, the US and the UN withdrew the terror tags against him and his organisation at Ghani's insistence as part of the deal that brought him back to Kabul this month.

But Hekmatyar has, since returning to Kabul, repeatedly criticised the Ghani government and the continued presence of the US - the two pillars India counts on in Afghanistan.


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