Meet Mr. Blowback, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pashtun warlord, former Afghan prime minister, fundamentalist religious fanatic, and homicidal thug, has been much in the news of late. The largest battle in Afghanistan in recent months, in the mountains near Spin Boldak on January 27, pitted US forces against guerrillas “most closely aligned with the Hezb-i Islami movement, which is Hekmatyar’s military arm,” according to US military spokesman Colonel Roger King (Daily Times, Pakistan, Feb. 10). The death of nine minibus passengers in an explosion near Kandahar January 31 was also attributed to Hezb-i-Islami. It’s been widely alleged that Hekmatyar, who has been sighted in six Afghan provinces in the last three months, has linked up with Mullah Omar, remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda (Boston Globe, February 9). This is plausible, although one must note a history of sour relations between the Taliban and the warlord. Few articles in the mainstream press mention the far more substantial historical association: that between Hekmatyar and the CIA. During the 1980s he received fully 90% the CIA-supplied funds doled out via Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) to the Mujahadeen Islamic warriors (see Ahmed Rashid, Taliban [Yale University Press, 2000], p. 91). These funds amounted to some half-billion dollars per year throughout the 1980s, matched by equal sums from that other enthusiastic Mujahadeen patron, acting in close cooperation with the US: Saudi Arabia.

Hekmatyar is Mr. Blowback, among the most vicious of former US clients now at odds with their one-time paymasters. So his career deserves some study. Born in Baghlan around 1950, Hekmatyar attended a military academy, then Kabul University where by some accounts he was for several years a member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a party aligned with the Soviet Union. At that time the Kabul government was neutral in the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR, and the PDPA operated legally within a basically secular environment. At the university, the PDPA adherents were challenged primarily not by Islamicists (among whose ranks we must surely now count Mr. Blowback), but by the Maoists of the Shola Jawaid (Eternal Flame) movement. (The Maoists briefly published a journal under that title.) In June 1972, Hekmatyar assassinated Saydal Sokhandan, a Shola Jawaid leader, on the Kabul campus. This was his first murder, and claim to fame. To avoid prosecution, he fled to Pakistan, where he organized against the PDPA (which would in 1978 execute a coup and align Kabul with the Soviet Union), and founded Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam).

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, Hezb-i-Islami played a leading role in the Islamic jihad against the pro-Soviet regime and so naturally went on the US payroll. Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, convicted of responsibility for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1995, helped the CIA establish contacts with Hekmatyar. Meanwhile the latter’s forces in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan continued a jihad against the Maoists, who were also playing a significant role in the anti-Soviet resistance. Hekmatyar wanted to insure that the opposition was thoroughly religious and anti-communist in character. So in November 1986, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Hezb-i-Islami forces assassinated Dr. Faiz Ahmad, founder and leader of the Maoist Afghanistan Liberation Organization, and ten other key ALO members. The next year, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA, a secular, anti-fundamentalist organization rooted in the Maoist movement), they were complicit in the assassination of RAWA founder Meena (b. 1957) in Quetta, Pakistan. (I doubt the CIA found any of this objectionable.)

So great was Hekmatyar’s cooperation with the CIA (then headed by William Casey) that he even, at their request, launched rocket attacks from Afghanistan against the Soviet republic of Tajikistan in 1987 (Rashid, p. 129). In June 1993, following the Mujahadeen victory over the last government installed by the Soviets, Hekmatyar became prime minister of the country, serving under the new president, Burhanuddin Rabbani. But he broke with the government in the fall, and in January 1994, in alliance with Abdul Rashid Dostum (the warlord who presently controls much of northern Afghanistan) laid siege to Kabul. In two months, 4,000 residents of Kabul (which had been an island of stability and prosperity during the pro-Soviet period) were killed. 21,000 were injured, and 200,000 were forced to flee the city. For a time Rabbani’s forces joined an alliance with the Taliban against Hekmatyar, and in November, Pakistan broke ties with Hekmatyar in favor of the Taliban. (As Benzadir Bhutto explained in 2001, “We developed relations with [the Taliban] because we were interested in routes to Central Asia” and she felt that the Taliban could restore peace and order.)

Hekmatyar and Rabbani reconciled in 1995, taking on a new alliance of Dostum’s forces and the Taliban. Hekmatyar was on the same side as Ahmed Shah Massoud (whom the Northern Alliance continues to idolize), whose troops systematically raped and killed members of the Shi’ite Hazzara community in Kabul. In March, the Taliban decimated Hekmatyar’s army, and in September 1996, entered the capital, toppling the government headed by Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Massoud. Hekmatyar had already fled to Iran.

Since the Mujahadeen triumph in 1993 the US had paid little attention to Afghanistan, which had not been considered of much strategic interest before the pro-Soviet coup in 1978. After the Taliban’s conquest of power, in all but five or ten percent of the country, the US continued to recognize the Rabbani regime, but did little to support it (in contrast to Russia and Iran, which provided assistance to the Northern Alliance forces fighting in the northern Tajik and Uzbek regions under Massoud’s command). The CIA perhaps severed ties with Hekmatyar and his forces. In any case, one heard little more from the warlord until November 2001, after the Northern Alliance, abetted by US bombing, retook the city of Kabul. Rabbani was back in power as president, but the US refused to recognize his government, and urged the selection of a Pashtun president to balance the overwhelmingly Tajik-Uzbek composition of the government. The conference held in Bonn that month was designed to establish a new regime that would address Pashtun concerns, provide stability and place the nation firmly within the U.S. orbit. From Iran, Hekmatyar fumed that “Only groups fitting US requirements and interests have been invited” to Bonn. The former CIA operative now called for a jihad against the US.

Soon a deputy intelligence officer in Jalalabad was telling the press that Hekmatyar was trying to organize a force of former Taliban soldiers, Pakistanis and Pashtuns to destabilize the new government. In January 2002, Afghan police intercepted a bus headed for Kabul from Jalalabad, reportedly carrying agents for a chemical attack. Some suggested this was a Hekmatyar project; others blamed al-Qaeda. In March, press accounts indicated that Hekmatyar had left Iran for Herat, either because Iranian authorities had expelled him, or because he wanted to militarily challenge the new government, with Iranian assistance. 300 people were arrested the next month in an alleged coup plot in Kabul; again, Afghan sources blamed forces loyal to Hekmatyar.

The standard spin on such stories by this time was that the former prime minister had formed an alliance with his former Taliban enemies, and their al-Qaeda friends. In July the Boston Globe reported that Hekmatyar had recently met repeatedly with Osama bin Laden. It’s hard to know what to make of such reports. Hekmatyar is considered close to Shi’ite Iran, and Iran and the fiercely anti-Shi’ite Taliban came close to war in 1998.

The history of enmity between Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban would seem to rule out a close and comfortable union, but perhaps the various forces have indeed worked out a temporary marriage of convenience.

Last year, on May 6, the CIA fired a Hellfire missile from an unmanned Predator spy plane in an effort to kill their Frankenstein somewhere in Afghanistan. It missed. (The warlord’s son, at a news conference in Peshawar, indignantly protested the assassination attempt, declaring that his father supported the Karzai government and the upcoming Loya Jirga, confident that his Hezb-i-Islami party would be well represented at that event.) The failed attack, which was of course under-reported in the corporate press, was significant for several reasons. It was conducted by the intelligence agency that had created him (by the Americans who know him best), rather than by the coalition military forces sent to topple the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda. It was the first time that a target other than the Taliban or al-Qaeda (and without any imaginable connection to 9-11) was singled out for a lethal strike. It was an assassination attempt on a foreign political leader, of the sort that up until recently has been disallowed by US law. (It was followed by the well-publicized US assassination in Yemen of alleged al-Qaeda leader, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, and five other alleged operatives with another laser-guided Hellfire missile, fired from an unmanned drone aircraft, last November.)

The Afghan missile attack signaled that US forces would treat as enemies any armed resistance to the Karzai puppet regime (or what might be termed the Karzai/warlord regime, since Karzai is really only Mayor of Kabul and the rest of the country is ruled by the baronial administrations of Ismail Khan, Qasim Fahim, Dostum, etc.), even as ever-widening sectors of Afghan society grow disillusioned with that regime. It signaled mission-creep, and the potential for a nation apparently “under control” to morph into a Vietnam-style quagmire. There are many forces in Afghanistan who for various reasons want to sabotage Karzai and drive out the westerners, the successors of the infidel Soviets. Hekmatyar, as long as he survives, will probably play a big role in the opposition. Anyway it seems to me that he’s the man to watch.

Quite likely, the empire that chose to subsidize some of the most reactionary, misogynistic, fundamentalist scumbags on the planet to destroy the Soviet Union and to achieve “full spectrum dominance” will continue (due to the efforts of its erstwhile clients, like Mr. Blowback), to pay for its sins. Support a brutal Shah? Watch his enraged victims seize your embassy and take your agents hostage. Support Iraq against Iran, to punish Iran for overthrowing your Shah? Watch the Iraqi ally use the weapons you sold him against your client oil-state of Kuwait. Finish off Saddam, in a splendid little war? Watch how the world, recoiling in horror and outrage, will prepare its answers. “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). Imperialist sin is system wide, having its own (evil) logic, at odds ultimately with the logic, morality and interests of ordinary American people, who alone, in the end, can excise it through the radical exorcism of thorough-going regime change right here at home.



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: