Meet Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—a brutal, capricious, and violently anti-American warlord—may be the West’s best hope for its faltering adventure against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar is fighting alongside the Taliban against the Karzai government and ISAF and U.S. forces.

Nevertheless, over the last five years, he has been the object of escalating blandishments by the Karzai government, Saudi Arabia, NATO, and perhaps even the United States, seeking to lure him away from the Taliban camp and into the Karzai government.

On February 20,  al Jazeera reported on the most recent status of talks between the Afghan government and Hekmatyar, Mullah Omar…well, probably everybody, as Karzai tries to shore up support for his rule in the run-up to snap parliamentary elections and in the face of growing U.S. hostility to his rule.

The Hekmatyar talks, encouraged by the UK, have apparently gotten to the point where Hekmatyar is being offered asylum in Saudi Arabia and the chance to return to public life in Afghanistan, at least Hamid Karzai’s part of it, with a pardon.

A key sticking point that al Jazeera didn’t go into a great deal is that Hekmatyar insists on a departure of foreign troops as a precondition for engaging with the Karzai government.

That’s a major, probably insurmountable obstacle for Karzai, and one wonders if Hekmatyar is negotiating or just playing for time as he preps for the latest iteration in Afghanistan’s twenty-year civil war.

Certainly, trusting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is not a recipe for a long and happy life.

Paradoxically, in the eyes of the West, Hekmatyar’s bottomless appetite for betrayal and his ruthless willingness to inflict violence and suffering on the Afghan people may perhaps be considered his greatest asset.

Hekmatyar’s career as a revolutionary and warlord far pre-date the Taliban.

When Afghanistan was still a sleepy, pro-Soviet satellite in the 1970s, Hekmatyar, a student at Kabul University, fell under the influence of the Islamist politics of the Muslim Brotherhood, propagated inside the university by professors who had trained in Egypt.

Hekmatyar, who still uses the honorific “Engineer” in recognition of his studies at KU, became a paragon of Islamist militancy, reportedly carrying a vial of acid to fling into the faces of coeds not veiling themselves with suitable modesty.

The university, and Afghan political life in general, was split between secularist, socialist pro-Soviet and Islamist factions.  The strife was not just verbal, it was physical.  Hekmatyar murdered a Maoist student and was forced to flee Afghanistan for Pakistan.

There, Hekmatyar formed a lasting alliance with Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islaami (JI) political party and, through it, with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate.

When the Soviet Union sent its 40th Army to prop up the pro-Soviet regime of Babrak Karmal, Hekmatyar became the preferred face of the Afghan resistance.  Hosted by the JI, patronized by the ISI, funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia to the tune of US$ 600 pmillion, and armed by the Chinese, Hekmatyar was given carte blanche to run the massive Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshawar that fed fighters into the jihad, and directly controlled the main Pashtun mujahideen force inside Afghanistan, Hezb-i-Islami.

After the Soviets left and, after three more years of struggle, the pro-Soviet regime of Muhammad Najibullah finally fell in 1992, Hekmatyar was finally ready to cap his political career with the formation of an Islamicist, pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the Afghan presidential palace.

A combination of Tajik and Uzbek forces from Afghanistan’s north ensconced themselves in Kabul first under the leadership of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, subjecting Hekmatyar to the frustration of on-again off-again negotiations to allow him to enter the government as Prime Minister.

In order to improve his bargaining position, Hekmatyar engaged in several campaigns of indiscriminate shelling of Kabul over the next two years that killed 20,000 civilians but did not seal his political ascendancy.

This dismal record, combined with Hekmatyar’s reputation for savage political infighting especially with royalist and socialist factions of the Afghan resistance, gave birth to the trope that “Hekmatyar has killed more Afghans than he did Russians”.

Hekmatyar’s bloody and ineffectual intransigence convinced Pakistan that he couldn’t lead Afghanistan.  Fatally, the ISI prevailed upon Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to provide clandestine to support to another Pashtun force instead—the Taliban.

With the assistance and coordination of the ISI, the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1992.

Hekmatyar, who had chosen exactly the wrong time to enter the Kabul government and fight the Taliban, fled to Iran (backers of the Rabbani/Massoud government), where he rusticated under the watchful eye of the Iranian intelligence services.

Hekmatyar was expelled from Tehran after 9/11.  Some reports attribute his expulsion to Iranian desire to placate the United States; others call it payback for President Bush’s provocative labeling of Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil”.

As Hekmatyar journeyed into Afghanistan in May 2002, reportedly bereft of $70 million he had deposited in Iranian accounts but was confiscated by the Tehran government, he was targeted for assassination by a CIA drone as his convoy approached Kabul; the Hellfire missile somehow missed.

Once back in Afghanistan, instead of being a spent and discredited force, Hekmatyar raised the banner of jihad against the United States, NATO, and the Karzai regime.  He was able to rebuild his army and take credit for several high-profile outrages, including an assassination attempt against Karzai in 2002 and the bloodiest defeat suffered by NATO forces—the killing of ten French troops in an ambush north of Kabul in 2008.

It is difficult to escape the suspicion that, post 9/11, Hekmatyar still enjoyed the clandestine support of elements inside the ISI as a counter to the Taliban.

It is also possible to look at the mysterious circumstances of his expulsion from Iran and the failed assassination attempt by the CIA (which was, as Gary Leupp pointed out, the Global War on Terror’s first announced targeted assassination attempt against a figure unrelated to the 9/11 attacks) as possible efforts to reintroduce him into Afghanistan without undermining his  anti-U.S. credibility (The idea of a deeper-than-deep black op initiative to reintroduce Hekmatyar into Afghanistan is not out of the question.  Sometime around the end of 2003, the United States released Abdullah Mehsud from Guantanamo; Mehsud returned to Pakistan and started up a Pakistan Taliban force, but was suspected by other factions of being a double-agent.)

Even as Hekmatyar re-established himself inside Afghanistan, the Karzai government made repeated attempts to lure him back into the government.

After all, there is virtually no convergence between Hekmatyar’s Islamicist militancy based on the Leninist and elitist doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the obscurantist fundamentalism of the Taliban, nurtured in the Deobandi madrassas of Pakistan’s west.

The suspicion, rivalry, and fundamental differences in theology and strategy that militate against a genuine alliance between the Taliban and Hekmatyar were described in a report by the “Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies”:

An Afghan political analyst and head of the affairs of the Middle East and African countries during the Taliban regime, Waheed Muzda while talking to journalists said, “The alliance between the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami is impossible as they have differences over many issues. Gulbadeen Hikmatyar believes in democracy and elections but Taliban oppose it. They say such elections in which every person even corrupt people also take part are not justified according to the Shariah. Similarly, Hizb-e-Islami favors education and jobs of women whereas Taliban do not like it. Another different thing between the both groups is that Taliban are closely linked with al-Qaeda and their movement is separate from those of other Islamist organizations. For example, Taliban regime did not heed the chief of Tanzeem Ikhwanul Muslimoon and other religious leaders when they were demolishing historical statues in Bamian. Taliban had also rejected Hizb-e-Islami’s request for allied government. In 2001, when threats of attack on Afghanistan mounted, Taliban had formed a delegation to meet Hikmatyar but it was too late. During the talks between Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami in 2005, the former had said that they would change war strategy in 2006 and they proposed Hizb-e-Islami to accept responsibility of all the strikes. They also offered political leadership to Hizb-e-Islami. But Hizb-e-Islami rejected this offer as, in this way, Taliban wanted to eliminate chances of Hikmatyar’s possible alliance with the Afghan government.”[emph. added]

Hamid Karzai has been wooing Hekmatyar for years to abandon the Taliban and join the Kabul government.  The Hizb-i-Islami “Decision Making Council”, a splinter group which has disavowed Hekmatyar but is still suspected of being directed by him, joined the Afghan political process in 2005 with the permission of the Karzai government and won 34 seats in the parliamentary elections.

It is not unreasonable to think that Hekmatyar, the  most significant Pashtun power not beholden to al Qaeda muscle, would embody the hopes of Pakistan for a strongman to cut the Taliban down to size—or at least neutralize the Taliban on the battlefield and create a bloody stalemate.

Clearly, the United States is also thinking in these terms—despite the multi-million dollar price it reputedly keeps on Hekmatyar’s head.

In June of 2008, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law (who served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan in the brief, pre-Taliban period) was transferred from Bagram Air Base to an Afghan prison and released—a move that could have happened only with U.S. acquiescence.

Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad fills in the story:

Ghairat Bahir is the son-in-law of veteran mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and a top leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA). He was arrested by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad in 2002 on American pressure when he was making desperate moves to activate the HIA’s jihadi network in favor of the Taliban. He was handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and kept in various secret locations before being moved to Bagram. He was recently sent to Pul-i-Charki jail in Kabul after apparently agreeing to cooperate with the administration of President Hamid Karzai.

Immediately after his release, Ghairat Bahir was received at the presidential palace in Kabul and offered powerful ministries for the HIA if he agreed to act as a power-broker between top insurgent commanders, including Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hekmatyar, on one side and the US-backed Karzai administration on the other.

When Saudi Arabia hosted exploratory talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government in July 2008, a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was there, apparently as a free agent unaffiliated with either delegation:

The talks were also attended by a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami party who was a former military commander during the Afghan-Soviet war. Hekmatyar is wanted by the United States on charges of terrorism.

In October, Hekmatyar appeared in the unlikely role of champion of democracy, differentiating himself from the remorselessly theocratic Taliban while restating his precondition of withdrawal of foreign troops in an assertion of his jihadi credibility.

From the Pakistan Daily Times:

“The only solution to the existing crisis is the withdrawal of foreign troops, the holding of fair elections, the transfer of power to elected representatives and the establishment of an Islamic government in Afghanistan,” Hekmatyar said in a statement released on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the United States attack on Afghanistan.

Then, in a November 2008 article entitled Afghan Rebel Positioned for Key Role, the Washington Post gave a hint that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar might be the kind of guy we can do business with:

[W]ith casualties among foreign forces at record highs, and domestic and international confidence in Karzai’s government at an all-time low, U.S. and Afghan officials may have little choice but to grant Hekmatyar a choice seat at the bargaining table.

Top U.S. military officials have indicated in recent weeks a willingness to cut deals with rebel commanders like Hekmatyar to take insurgents off the battlefield.

This was despite Hekmatyar claiming responsibility (despite Taliban’s efforts to take the credit) for the ambush that killed 10 French soldiers north of Kabul in a few weeks previously.

Then, in January of this year, Hekmatyar’s brother (who resides in the NWFP capital of Peshawar) was released from Pakistani custody after five months’ detention.

Clearly, there is a lot of action on the Hekmatyar reconciliation front.

The Chinese might be willing to give this channel a try as well, given the fact that the Taliban seems to have abandoned its traditional deference to Chinese interests and may decide to abet Uighur separatists undermining public order and Chinese rule in the PRC’s vast Muslim province of Xinjiang.

After all, although the Chinese role was never as highly publicized as the efforts of the United States and Saudi Arabia, China was a major participant in the mujahideen network sponsored by the ISI to battle the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The Soviet-backed government in Kabul accused the Chinese of providing $400 million in military aid, though it might be more accurate to say that the Chinese did $400 million in business, paid for by the CIA.

When the covert campaign to supply the Afghan fighters, in particular Hekmatyar, got so big that the CIA had exhausted the traditional sources of clandestine weaponry, China happily took on the profitable duty of providing guns and bullets from its factories.  China even provided mules to ease the famous transport shortage engendered by the flood of material.

The Pakistan-ISI-JI-Hekmatyar channel is certainly familiar and comfortable for the Chinese government, and Beijing has been in contact with Hekmatyar for years.

When Hekmatyar reemerged in Afghanistan in 2002, Asia Times’  Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote:

Sources within the HIA say that the organization has recently reestablished contact with the Chinese government. In the past, Beijing has blamed the HIA for stirring a religious uprising in in the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang, but Hekmatyar made concerted efforts to placate China, as well as to urge the Muslim leaders in Xinjiang to stop their separatist agitation. Beijing was said to be appreciative of these efforts, but it is yet to be seen how far China will go in supporting the new Afghan freedom struggle against foreign troops, if at all.

As conditions in western Pakistan have deteriorated, China has responded by reaching out to the JI, hosting a top level delegation from the Islamist political party in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai this February.  A memorandum of understanding confirming the principle of non-interference in Chinese internal affairs i.e. Xinjiang was inked, and the head of the JI returned to Pakistan full of praise for the PRC.

As to the significance of this initiative, it should be pointed out that the JI’s influence on the Taliban is virtually non-existent.  JI’s political rival in west Pakistan, the JUI, run the Deobondi madrassas that nurtured the Taliban and has been the ISI’s designated interlocutor with the Taliban.

Now, even the JUI is forced to take dictation from the increasingly assertive and intimidating militants.

The JI would be of practical value to China if the Zardari government fell, and the JI entered the ruling coalition with its political ally, the Nawaz Sharif’s secularist PML-N.  A close JI link also be of use if China wanted to have the option of funneling aid to Hekmatyar in an anti-Taliban effort.

Hekmatyar’s consistent position has been that he wants foreign military forces to exit Afghanistan, and he will then mix it up with his chosen enemies.

Indeed, it would appear politically impossible for Hekmatyar to fight the Taliban in alliance with U.S. and NATO forces and a Western-backed regime.

In 2002, Time Magazine quoted him as saying, “”We prefer involvement in internal war rather than occupation by foreigners and foreign troops”.

Hekmatyar’s uncompromising militancy—especially his willingness to fight the Taliban and his consequences-be-damned approach to Afghan collateral damage–may turn out to be the music that the region’s interested powers want to hear.

However, a choice between conducting an unpopular counterinsurgency campaign reliant on foreign troops or unleashing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to take on the Taliban by himself is not much of a choice at all.

It remains to be seen if the aging Hekmatyar can stand up to the Taliban, which routed his forces in 1996, by himself.

In contrast to Hekmatyar’s bull-headed exploitation of the traditional channels of muscle and money—a Pashtun insurgency powered by foreign money and ISI expertise—the Taliban has shown itself to be frighteningly protean and potent.

The Taliban under Mullah Omar is not just a group of narrow-minded fanatics led by a charismatic leader who fancies himself an instrument of Allah on earth.

The Taliban is a supremely adaptive military force, exploiting the friendship, assets, and expertise of Pashtun smugglers, southern Afghan drug dealers, the ISI, officers of the Khalq faction of the old Afghan government and, of course al Qaeda, to entrench itself as the dominant power in a broad swath of Pashtun central Asia, from the poppy fields of the Iranian border to the Pashtun high valleys less than 100 miles from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.

As the Taliban grows in strength, Hekmatyar fades, and the hopes for a native Afghan government able to dictate terms to Mullah Omar fades with him.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.