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Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: Ruthless Warlord, New Karzai Ally or Both?

  • Sean Maroney

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai reaches out to militants before next month's peace council, some human-rights activists say they are concerned with the types of individuals who may enter the government. Earlier this week, President Karzai met with a high-level delegation from the Hezb-i-Islami insurgent group. The leader of that faction is a well-known polarizing figure.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar first rose to prominence in Afghanistan during the 1970s when he founded Hezb-i-Islami, which means "The Islamic Party."

Despite its origins in university student groups, Hekmatyar's organization soon became known as one of the major Afghan guerrilla factions, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

During the next decade, the United States spent billions of dollars in covert assistance to fight the Soviet forces. U.S. officials funneled the money through Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, and the lion's share went to Hekmatyar.

The ISI director general in the 1980s, Hamid Gul, says he knows Hekmatyar well. He tells VOA the ethnic-Pashtun mujahideen leader, who originally studied in the university to become an engineer, was an important asset for both the United States and Pakistan at the time.

But Gul says Hekmatyar was always an outspoken critic of the United States. He says it is Hekmatyar's nature that is probably urging him now to negotiate with the current Afghan government for a share in the post-U.S.-invasion Afghanistan.

"He is very ambitious, and that is probably his undoing," said Hamid Gul. "I mean, he is politically very, very ambitious; there is no doubt about it. He has a charismatic personality, and his Hezb-i-Islami is a very well-organized force, and I think he could still draw a lot of loyalists."

But the director of the Kabul-based Afghan Rights Monitor, Ajmal Samadi, has a less flattering recollection of the militant leader. After the Soviets withdrew and the U.S. support for Afghan guerillas dried up, Hekmatyar's fighters battled with other rebel factions in Kabul for control of the country.

Samadi describes how Hekmatyar solidified a reputation as a ruthless warlord.

"Forces under his command were accused of very, very appalling crimes, for instance: the rape of women, the use of child soldiers, sexual exploitation of children, shelling civilian-populated areas, blockading the city and denying people access to essential services," said Ajmal Samadi.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar briefly served as Afghanistan's prime minister in the 1990s. But when his rival Mullah Mohammad Omar seized control of the government in 1996 with his Taliban fighters, Hekmatyar fled to Iran.

He apparently left that country sometime after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Soon after, Hekmatyar announced his support for his former rivals, the Taliban, and his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The United States targeted Hekmatyar with a drone missile strike in 2002, but missed. U.S. officials labeled the Hezb-i-Islami leader a terrorist the following year, saying he participated in and supported terrorist acts committed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In recent years, analysts believe Hekmatyar has been living in Pakistan while directing his fighters in operations against coalition and Afghan troops in eastern and northern Afghanistan.

Speaking from Kabul, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, Haroun Mir, says Afghan President Hamid Karzai's desire to reconcile with the Taliban is most likely making Hekmatyar consider shifting his alliances, as he has done many times in the past.

"Hekmatyar is keen to reach out to Kabul and find a negotiation because he knows that he could not enjoy the kind of support the Taliban receive from Pakistan and al-Qaida," said Haroun Mir.

He points to the fact that earlier this month, a firefight erupted between some of Hekmatyar's fighters and the Afghan Taliban, killing about 50 people. It is unclear what caused the fight, but Mir says if the Taliban and Afghan government reach an agreement, Hekmatyar might be sidelined.

Daoud Sultanzoy is a member of the Afghan Parliament. He tells VOA that Hekmatyar appears to have more of a willingness to negotiate than the Taliban.

"The Taliban are saying one of the conditions is the removal of foreign troops and they will not accept the constitution of Afghanistan, but Mr. Hekmatyar or at least his aides are saying that they are prepared to sit down and talk about these things," said Daoud Sultanzoy.

U.S. officials cautiously welcomed talks this week between President Karzai and the Hezb-i-Islami delegation. But they stressed that any groups involved in peace talks must renounce violence and support for the insurgency, live in accordance with the Afghan constitution and sever any ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist networks.

It is unclear whether Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is prepared to do all those things, but at the very least, analysts say he is willing to talk. At the same time, there is a fear that his violent reputation against Afghan civilians could undermine the Karzai administration.

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