Courting Hekmatyar

In a Newsweek interview last week President Obama explained his assessment of the war in Afghanistan as of February when he announced his decision to increase U.S. forces in the country by 17,000.

“The starting point,” states Obama, “was a recognition that the existing trajectory was not working, that the Taliban had made advances, that our presence in Afghanistan was declining in popularity, that the instability along the border region was destabilizing Pakistan as well.”

All of this sounds empirically accurate, aside from being an implicit critique of the strategy inherited from the Bush administration in keeping with Obama’s “Bush dropped the ball on Afghanistan” campaign theme. It’s significant that Obama specifically recognizes the fact that the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular. He might note that the “border region” to which he refers is the heart of Pashtunistan, a nation of 40 million people whose ancient homeland straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the anger of Pashtuns at the U.S. presence in one country necessarily spills over to the other. In other words, the unpopular presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is directly related to the destabilization of Pakistan.

Why then, increase the force by 17,000, in addition to the 38,000 already in place and the 21,000 non-U.S. troops in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force? The surge does not come in response to any appeal from the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Handpicked for the post by Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy to the Loya Jirga of 2002, this man recognized and trumpeted by Washington as a democratically-elected leader has become increasingly critical of U.S. bombing and missile attacks and last November actually told a visiting U.N. Security Council delegation that the foreign forces in his country should set a date to leave. “If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations,” he declared.

By “negotiations” he means talks with the Taliban and other groups resisting his very weak government that barely controls Kabul while the warlords manage their fiefs and the Taliban maintains its clandestine network structure in villages throughout the Pashtun regions.

Military Action in the Electoral Context

Reasonable people may truly ask: if “our presence in Afghanistan [is] declining in popularity”—why increase it by a third? Obama explains: “We have to see our military action in the context of a broader effort to stabilize security in the country, allow national elections to take place in Afghanistan and then provide the space for the vital development work that’s needed so that a tolerant and open, democratically elected government is considered far more legitimate than a Taliban alternative.”

He emphasizes the upcoming election, scheduled for August 20. Karzai having made some political alliances with warlords is favored to win, although Washington might prefer another of the candidates. The election has been delayed from May, just as the 2004 presidential poll was postponed from July to October, due to security considerations, and the Taliban has called upon people to boycott the poll.

Obama hints that the election results will partly determine the ability of the U.S. and its allies to accomplish “the vital development work” needed to make the Afghan masses see that the political parties participating in elections are more legitimate than the movement that ruled for four years and has quietly reestablished itself at the village level in much of the country. Maybe he understands that the mere bestowal of the right to vote has nothing to do with empowerment. You can corral people to the polls and even give them a selection of candidates. But if religious, tribal and patriarchal authority dictate votes there’s no liberation here, just an indelible thumb-marking ritual on display for the cameras.

Getting the Afghan people to change the way they think—that’s a tall order indeed. But Obama seems to recognize this: “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops. The military component is critical to accomplishing that goal, but it is not a sufficient element by itself.” So we are to understand the surge of 17,000 as designed to further establish the legitimacy of the Kabul government and its ability to deliver “development” in a society that is overwhelmingly illiterate, tribal, devoutly Muslim and historically ill-disposed towards foreign invaders and occupiers and their local accomplices. But Obama acknowledges  the unpopularity of the troops’ presence—implicitly recognizing that he might be pouring gasoline on the fire. So he may be reluctant to increase troop strength beyond the surge.

Thinking in Flux

In any case the administration’s thinking seems to be in flux. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, was relieved of his command after only eight months. Secretary of Defense Gates on returning from a recent visit to Afghanistan implied that Obama wants new ideas from the brass. “The challenge that we give the new leadership is, how do we do better? What ideas do you have? What fresh thinking do you have? Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals? How can we be more effective?”

It is indeed time to rethink. What are the goals, anyway? (I should say their goals—they’re certainly not mine—and caution that they’re not likely to state all of them openly.) It’s not about al-Qaeda anymore, if it ever was. There are no Arabs left in the country, and the Uzbek jihadis affiliated with al-Qaeda are concerned with toppling the government of Uzbekistan, not terrorist actions against the U.S.  Counter-terrorism works as the general explanation for the mission for public consumption, but what’s really happening is a low-intensity counterinsurgency war on behalf of a puppet regime more frail than the pro-Soviet ones from 1978-1993. (Those were backed up by the military might of the neighboring superpower with the same sort of inefficacy.)

“Democratization” has been a joke, along with the liberation of women from the burqa and worse aspects of traditional patriarchy. Everybody paying attention realizes that the burqas haven’t come off Afghan women; all the oppression and tradition that that costume usefully symbolized eight years ago remains. The Afghan courts sentence people to death for converting to Christianity or engaging in same-sex relations and dole out 20-year sentences for “blasphemy.” U.S.-imposed regime change hasn’t much changed the composition of the Afghan ruling class or its ideological framework.

In Afghanistan as well as Iraq, “democracy” has been mere neocon window-dressing for regime-changing imperial projects. When Obama tells Newsweek we should see “military action in the context of a broader effort to stabilize security in the country, allow national elections to take place in Afghanistan and then provide the space for the vital development work that’s needed” he seems to echo the neocons. He at least links U.S. military action to democratic elections as though the latter were the main point. But he lacks the neocons’ optimistic tone, perhaps hinting that he could settle for mere stability. As we’ll see, he has just reached out to one of the biggest anti-democratic thugs in modern Afghan history in an effort to obtain stability.

For the neocons, Afghanistan was a bridge to Iraq. If they’d had their preference, the U.S. would have attacked Iraq immediately after 9-11. As it was, the invasion of Afghanistan was easily justified by the al-Qaeda presence in the country, if not by the character of the Taliban regime, and so was popular with the people. Support for the Afghan War fed support for an Iraq invasion while the neocons did their best to conflate all Muslim foes and to link bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. Thus the Afghan invasion served its purpose in the grand neocon program of toppling regimes throughout Southwest Asia, creating pro-U.S. “democracies” and making the region safer for Israel.

For the military and security establishments, the war in Afghanistan is principally about ensuring that the country does not return to rule by forces like the Taliban that might harbor groups like al-Qaeda planning actions against the U.S.  But surely the serious among them realize the need to make analytical distinctions between the home-grown Pashtun nationalists with a socio-politico-religious agenda for their own country and the multinational Islamist terrorists who want to recreate a global Caliphate.

Karzai, who was the first foreign minister under the Taliban regime that came to power in 1996, has said there are “some excellent people” in the Taliban and wants to negotiate with them. (Recall the small controversy produced when he offered Mullah Omar safe passage to negotiate in Afghanistan and the U.S. informed him he couldn’t do that and there was a price on the mullah’s head?) They do have a base of popular support. Afghan senator Abdul Wali Ahmadzai, who was captured and held by the Taliban two months in 2008, says frankly, “The important point is that the people support the Taliban. This is the main problem: now the people do not like the government and they support the Taliban.”

The dream of extirpating the Taliban, as a purist politico-religious movement among the Pashtuns fired by anti-foreign jihadist passion, fueled by the civilian casualty rate and the call to avenge, and strengthened by the very corruption of the pro-western leadership, is so distant that top commanders admit openly that the war is not winnable through military means alone.  Gen. McKiernan told PBS in March that while the war “is absolutely winnable and will be won,” the military can only do so much. “It’s going to take security, it’s going to take governance, and it’s going to take socio-economic progress—all three of those in a comprehensive way,” he told Jim Lehrer. Perhaps at some point in this “socio-economic progress” support for the Taliban is supposed to fade away and the Afghans lose their traditional hostility to foreign troops on their soil.

The TAPI Pipeline

From the point of view of Wall Street, the advantage of conquering or at least stabilizing Afghanistan resides almost exclusively in the fact that the country lies between the natural gas fields of Turkmenistan and the Indian Ocean. Completion of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline will bring Caspian Sea gas to the world market avoiding Russian and Iranian territory. The deal, signed in December 2002, also has important military implications. The three major issues of concern discussed between the Taliban (whose regime Washington never recognized officially) and U.S. officials between 2006 and 2001 were bin Laden, opium eradication, and pipeline construction. As an executive with UNOCAL former State Department official Zalmay Khalilzad entertained Taliban officials at his Texas ranch and wrote a Washington Post op-ed in October 1996 urging the Clinton administration to work with the Taliban since they didn’t “practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran.”

The point is, very powerful forces in the U.S. see the gas pipeline as the whole purpose for being in Afghanistan. They may not care who’s in charge of Afghanistan, what sort of law they implement or what costume they make women wear. If their goal can be met without an endless counter-insurgency war taking heavier tolls by the year, so much the better.

 “Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals? How can we be more
effective?” It does appear that a new administration saddled with the results of a predecessor’s policies may indeed be taking a fresh look and re-strategizing. It’s new strategy includes an overture to the Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Career

This is indeed a policy shift. On April 2002, five months after the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance had captured Kabul and the Taliban declared defeated, Hekmatyar was targeted by a U.S. Predator drone strike. This was the first time such a strike was directed by the CIA rather than the military—and at a non-Taliban, non-al-Qaeda target. It was directed, oddly enough, at the man who had been the recipient of the bulk of aid channeled to the Afghan Mujahadeen anti-Soviet warriors of the 1980s by the CIA through Pakistan’s ISI.

Hekmatyar had been Prime Minister under the regime that succeeded the series of  ostensibly Marxist-Leninist regimes that ruled from 1978 to 1993. He had quickly fallen into quarreling with his alliance partners, laying siege to Kabul in early 1994 and killing 4000 civilians. He fled to Iran as the Taliban came to power in the fall of 1996. That was when the Taliban appeared to many in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a purist moral alternative to a vicious warlord alliance often at war with itself.

There is no question that the man is a homicidal thug. As a 22 year old student at Kabul University in 1972 Hekmatyar assassinated Saydal Sokhandan, a young Maoist leader on campus when Maoism was a major trend. He fled to Pakistan to avoid prosecution and then in exile organized against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the pro-Soviet party in neutral Afghanistan during the Cold War. (He may have actually worked with it during his student days and developed his animus against the Maoists from a PDPA rather than Islamist perspective.) In any case while in Afghanistan he founded the Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam) of Afghanistan (HIA) which, after the PDPA coup in 1978, organized some of the most effective resistance to the new secularist regime and its Soviet supporters. When the U.S. decided to “bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan the way they did us in Vietnam” he worked closely with the U.S.

When the alliance of Islamist anticommunists came to power in 1993, Hekmatyar entered into–then broke, then renewed–an alliance with the Tajik cleric Burhanuddin Rabbani, the new regime’s president.  The Taliban drove him out of the country in 1996 but in 2002 he returned from exile to forge an alliance with them against the invaders. He seems, in other words, a life-long opportunist.

Now it seems he’s been offered a deal by Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, whereby his forces will end their armed resistance to the regime in return for a share of political power. Governorships and ministries will go to the HIA, which already operates above ground in Afghanistan. Indeed, according to the Asia Times, “The HIA, whose political wing has offices all over Afghanistan and keeps 40 seats in the Afghan parliament, is fully geared to replace President Hamid Karzai in the upcoming presidential elections.”

Actually, Karzai seems to be consolidating his political position through shrewd alliances with warlords and increasingly sharp public criticism of U.S. and NATO bombing of his country. More importantly, Hekmatyar’s troops are expanding operations in the northern province of Baghlan and control Kapisa province, including Tagab Valley. That’s just 50 miles north of Kabul. In contrast, the Taliban armed forces are gathered along the border with Pakistan. The mainstream press tends to conflate all resistance to the foreign presence in the country with Taliban activity, which can of course always be depicted as a threat to U.S. and international security because of the Taliban’s historical association with al-Qaeda. But this is a separate force.

If unimpressed by Karzai’s  efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, some in the U.S. State Department may have concluded that they can deal with Hekmatyar. After all, he was a CIA operative for a long time; he was never in the Taliban and indeed headed the hated government they overthrew in 1996, driving him from the country.

According to Peter Lee writing in the Asia Times in March, “…the unpredictable Hekmatyar, who has survived the jihad, the civil war, defeat at the hands of the Taliban, exile in Iran, an assassination attempt by the CIA, and return to Afghanistan as an insurgent leader, is the great hope of all parties as the only Pashtun strongman untainted by al-Qaeda and possibly capable of taking on the Taliban.”

Holbrooke and Hekmatyar

From Washington’s standpoint, the deteriorating situation on the ground in Afghanistan, the reassertion of Taliban authority throughout the south (without major encounters with foreign forces), the reemergence of drug-funded warlordism, the spread of Taliban ideology and organizing to Pakistan all call for a new strategy in the Central Asian country. According to the London Times Online:

A representative of Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s regional envoy, has met Daoud Abedi, an Afghan-American businessman close to Hekmatyar, and the US administration will fund an Afghan government department to conduct negotiations with Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban.
It will be headed by Arif Noorzai, the former tribal affairs minister, and will receive $69m (£45m) of largely US money to offer sweeteners to win over the Taliban.

The focus on such political negotiations is the result of a growing recognition that the Taliban will not be defeated militarily, despite 21,000 additional American troops.

Abedi depicts Hekmatyar and the HIA as honest brokers seeking to secure a peace based on the withdrawal of foreign troops.

“The HIA’s stance is to bring peace in Afghanistan,” he told Asia Times, “and we all know that peace cannot come to Afghanistan without Hezb-e-Islami. Because of that issue, we are trying to work with all sides especially with the Taliban and with the US. The Kabul government has not been able to bring peace to Afghanistan…”

The reason there is no peace is that the Kabul government is propped up by foreign troops. “This is the demand of both sides, the HIA and the Taliban. This is the first priority: that foreign troops must leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.”

According to the Times, “The party is expected to be offered several ministries and provincial governorships in return for laying down its arms and agreeing not to disrupt the presidential elections due in August. Hekmatyar will not be offered a post but will be asked to go into exile in Saudi Arabia for three years, after which his name would be removed from the US list [of terrorists].” (That shows you one of the useages of the terror list—as a bargaining chip.)

Maybe Holbrooke reasons that there will be no TAPI natural gas pipeline without stability, and no stability without negotiations in which the HIA can play a central role. Hence a dirty deal with Hekmatyar, or at least, a gentlemanly agreement to begin to bargain. We could dwell if we liked on the moral depravity of this, and the necessity of U.S. imperialism to make common cause with moral monsters. In the 1980s at the height of the Cold War Hekmatyar rendered service by killing lots of Soviet boys, just as Saddam Hussein had rendered service by killing communists in Iraq after the coup of 1968. U.S. imperialism embraces then spurns these fiends when they’ve outlived their usefulness or shown themselves fickle or unreliable. That’s the principle aspect to emphasize. But let’s focus on the secondary one: how this represents a shift from earlier strategy.

It appears that the new strategy will be to buy all who can be bought (à la the “Sunni Awakening” model in Iraq), let Afghanistan be for the interim as a medieval agricultural society with low literacy and disturbingly patriarchal and repressive traditions, and work on making a client-state of that description truly serviceable to U.S. imperialism.

Destabilized Pakistan

The stability of Pakistan is intimately connected to that of Afghanistan. The Obama folks know that; hence their term “Af-Pak.” They know that the routing of the Taliban from Afghanistan produced the Talibanization of much of the Pakistan border area, the middle of Pashtunistan where the Pakistani Army seldom ventured before 2001, and where the Taliban was nurtured in the 1990s by Pakistan’s ISI.

They know that the Pakistani army seems incapable of, and maybe disinclined to, suppress the radical Islamists who are periodically fighting and periodically making deals with Islamabad, trading peace for the implementation of Sharia law, now threatening to  take over the Swat Valley. Maybe some in the State Department are concluding that the destabilization of Pakistan provoked by the U.S. response to 9-11 might become the Mother of all Blowbacks and that urgent measures are needed to prevent that from happening. Maybe the calming down of Afghanistan, and the brokerage of a deal between the Talibs, Hekmatyar (and other similar warlords), and Karzai would make it less likely that radical Islamists gain power in Pakistan, which actually does have nuclear weapons.

But those who can make peace with the U.S. demand that foreign forces withdraw. and Karzai himself has endorsed this demand. Either he or Hekmatyar might say: “You want your gas pipeline, circumventing Russia and Iran, from the Caspian to the Indian Ocean? We are all of us—all the sons of Afghanistan including the Taliban whom you recall negotiated at length with you people about pipeline construction—willing to cooperate. We just ask that you leave, like the Soviets did, and allow us to handle our own affairs.”

Public opinion in key countries contributing the bulk of the forces to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has long since turned against involvment in the Afghan War. The British, Germans, French, Italians, Canadians and Australians all want to pull out. Russia has used its influence to close the Manas Air Base in Kirghizistan vital to the Afghan operations to U.S. forces.

The Afghans want the foreigners out. The Russians want the U.S. to quit Central Asia. Public opinion in the ISAF countries will not tolerate indefinite military commitments in Afghanistan. Maybe the wily old warlord expected this to happen when he returned to the country from Iran in 2002, aligning himself with his former Taliban foes against the unifying enemy of the US/ISAF troops. Now he is positioning himself as a nationalist statesman standing between the government in Kabul, such as it is, and its U.S. backers and the Taliban. And perhaps as a Pashtun reconciler of factions across the “Af-Pak” border.

And maybe Obama’s State Department, applying some unexpectedly creative thinking, is reaching out to him to help it solve its Afghan mess. Just conceivably it will result in a deal: the end of the bombing and deadline for a troop pullout in exchange for a gas pipeline and the peace needed to construct and operate it.

That the Aghan people should remain mired in illiteracy and subject to the control of mullahs, patriarchal tribal leaders and warlords has never been of primary concern to the State Department. The U.S. in any case doesn’t, as a rule, dispatch its military to liberate people but to advance U.S. capitalist interests and impose regimes that will facilitate that end. Those interests include making Afghanistan safe and secure enough to profitably use. What would the point have been otherwise?

Maybe the administration will settle for more for less in Afghanistan, as it turns its attention to the proposed attack on Iran.

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: