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Hekmatyar Tries to Gain Support for War Against Karzai, US - 2002-09-12

Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai appears to be under increasing threat, as shown by a series of assassinations and assassination attempts on government figures, including a recent unsuccessful attempt on his own life. One source of danger to the Afghan leader is a figure from Afghanistan's pre-Taliban past, who is trying to whip up support for a war against Mr. Karzai and his U.S. backers.

On a scratchy audio tape sent recently to news agencies in Pakistan comes a voice from Afghanistan's turbulent past.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once a key figure in the fight against Soviet forces and in the subsequent Afghan civil war, calls on Afghans to attack U.S. troops and to throw out the Karzai government. Mr. Hekmatyar labels the U.S. war on terrorism a "crusader war," a term that has bitter connotations to Muslims, a reminder of the Western European crusades against Muslim forces some 800 years ago.

The message was the first clear demonstration of Mr. Hekmatyar's intentions, since he left his refuge in Iran last year and slipped back into Afghanistan. Analysts believe he is forging a new alliance with remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taleban to try to destabilize the Karzai government - although, in his message, Mr. Hekmatyar denies any such links.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the leader of the Hezb-I-Islami party, which was perhaps the most radical among the seven parties that made up the fractious anti-Soviet Afghan alliance of the 1980s. He espouses virulent anti-Americanism and a radical Islamic ideology, but nevertheless accepted U.S. arms and assistance, funneled through Pakistan, to fight occupying Soviet forces.

Ed McWilliams, the former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, describes Mr. Hekmatyar as dedicated more to his own ambition than any ideology. "It's said that he probably killed more Afghans than he did Soviets, he and his forces," he said. "I think that's probably true. He was essentially unique among mujahedin leaders - certainly the most ambitious among a very, very ambitious group of leaders. But he was the one that was, I think, more than any of the others, prepared to see Afghan blood shed for his purposes."

One U.S. official who had considerable dealings with Mr. Hekmatyar was Milt Bearden, who during the Soviet occupation, ran the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's covert program in Afghanistan. He says Mr. Hekmatyar struck him as "quirky and paranoid."

"Among the leaders, he was possibly the darkest, the one motivated more by internal demons than any of the other seven leaders of these parties that were leading the effort against the Soviet Union," said Milt Bearden. "And he was also the one who went out of his way to irritate the United States, at almost every possible turn of the road to stick a sharp stick in the eye of America."

When Kabul finally fell to the mujahedin in 1992, Mr. Hekmatyar turned his guns on Kabul in the first stages of bitter civil war that was to pave the way for a war-weary population to welcome the Taleban.

Mr. Hekmatyar's radical Islamist ideology would, on its face, seem to have given him some common ground with the Taleban. But, at that time, he was not able to forge any alliance with the Taleban perhaps, say analysts, because of his powerful personal ambition. He therefore fled to Iran.

Mr. Hekmatyar now appears to be trying to appeal to two strains in Afghanistan - bitterness among ethnic Pashtuns about the preeminence of ethnic Tajiks in the Karzai government, and resentment of foreign forces on Afghan soil.

Mr. Bearden says Mr. Hekmatyar's message may have some resonance among fellow Pashtuns, who are deeply skeptical of Mr. Karzai's close ties with the United States. "You saw the pictures of his American security team, good-looking American guys, guns at the ready, they killed the guy that tried to kill Karzai," he said. "This looks really good in Kansas City, but I'm not too sure it plays very well throughout most of Afghanistan to have a leader brought in by the Americans from the United States, and that is protected by the Americans from other Afghans."

Mr. McWilliams says Mr. Hekmatyar has funds - much of which are believed by Western analysts to have come from the drug trade - and considerable political skill. "I don't think that he has ever had great support among Afghans," he said. "But he has got great money. And he's a very skillful politician, capable of making alliances and breaking alliances very, very quickly."

As Mr. McWilliams puts it, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a U.S.-made nightmare, from the Soviet occupation-era, come back to haunt the effort to rebuild a shattered Afghanistan.