Gulbuddin Hekmatyar , ' The Engineer ' ,
Engineer , Warlord ,
and Alleged International Terrorist
Name: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Claim to Fame: liberated Kabul, then blew it up
Body Count: thousands
Other: whereabouts unknown, believed to be in the same rabbit hole as Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar
He was lean, mean, a killing machine with the heart of a sans-culotte. In most societies, he'd be locked up after his first beheading, but such were the circumstances of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's life that the Americans, with the tunnel vision typical of a great nation, backed up a few cargo planes loaded with AK-47s and Stinger missiles and other sharp objects he should have been kept away from and dumped the whole load into his hands. They believed - or hoped - that he'd kill more of the enemy with them than his own. Twenty-three years later, it's still not clear if he did.
Today, the former Afghan warlord is a shadow of himself. Hekmatyar's organization betrayed him, his friends use him as a bargaining chip and his circle of followers, which once spread across the breadth of Central Asia, is narrowed down to his nomadic kinsmen and a few disparate fanatics built in his own image. The sunburned zealot with muzzleflash in his eyes today is a pale, bloated cricket squinting behind thick spectacles. Yet even in the twilight of his degeneracy, and though everyone writes him off as a pathetic (if well-armed) has-been, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar still strikes terror in the heart of his opponents. In early February, 2003, after a year of writing him off and changing the subject, the American authorities in Afghanistan placed him at the head of a wanted list, behind only former Taleban bolt-thrower Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Seven months before, they tried to arrest him. And two months before that, they tried to kill him in a remote-controlled, high-tech assassination.
Yet there is no better protagonist for a novelist to spin the baleful tale of Afghanistan in the last quarter century. Hekmatyar was there for all of it: the rise of the Islamist movement and the Soviet invasion, the exile in Peshawar, the triumphant return at the head of the largest Mujahedin faction in the country and the collapse of the Afghan opposition which gave flight to the white flag of the Taleban.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar wasn't just a part of those events: he embodied them, just as he embodied the relative merits and flaws of the Mujahedin during the Afghan War. The first to the gun, he's among the last to put it down, even today when his band of "liberated territory" is limited to the safehouses of his followers and his headquarters in Peshawar. He was indispensable to the Mujahedin's success and instrumental in its disintegration - within limits, of course.
Just as he might have received too much of the credit for the Mujahedin's success against the Soviets, Hekmatyar today is unfairly scapegoated as the sole reason why the coalition immediately broke down into factional squabbles and warlordism after the Soviet withdrawal. His fanatical brand of Islam isn't much different than that espoused by the Taleban, it's true - and it's also true for just about all of the Mujahedin leaders, or at least the ones who have any beliefs to speak of. Hekmatyar's lust for power and his amoralism about he gets it is something that can be spread to just about all of his chief accusers. The intolerance, the assassinations, the betrayals and the corruption: all of the same accusations have been leveled at Hekmatyar's opponents as well as the man himself. They're united against him today as they never were during war: the solidarity of usurpers at work.
This is not to write an apologia for a man. Of all the disparagement thrown in his face, Hekmatyar deserves most of it. He's truly one of the most hideous men in Afghan history. Unfortunately, most of his peers are in the same chapter.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was born in 1947, the son of nomads newly arrived in Konduz province from the south. He enrolled in the military high school, and records compiled by Red Army intelligence, if they are to be believed, show he had extensive ties with one of the two Marxist movements spreading primarily in the army, the Khalq and the Parcham. These same leftist officers overthrew King Zahir Shah in July 1973, forming a pro-Soviet republic under the dictatorial authority of the king's nephew, Mohammed Daoud.
Hekmatyar left the military school in 1968, switching, as would a rather remarkable number of future Afghan warlords, to the faculty of engineering. A year later, by his own account, he formed the first avowed Islamist association in the country, Jawanan-e-Musulman (Muslim Youth) with eleven other students, none of whom have survived the years of bloodshed. His version is a bit at odds with the facts: the students' association was in fact created at the impetus of a circle of Middle Eastern-educated professors, among them Burhanuddin Rabbani, then a lecturer at Kabul University and later head of the Jamiyyat-e-Islami (Islamic Association) faction which became Hekmatyar's chief internal enemy.
The situation inside Afghanistan was inherently unstable in the 1970s. The Soviets browbeat the republic like a satellite. The Afghans responded by becoming stridently pro-Soviet, even though Moscow continued to support exclusively collaborationist factions who wanted to import full-fledged Leninism from up north. The King had been working to balance Soviet influence by strengthening ties with various other powers. Daoud overthrew him with the assistance of the Parchami faction of the Afghan Communist Party, yet he too was forced to look abroad for friends who might halt the progress of his overbearing protectors. After purging the government of Parchamis, Daoud was in turn overthrown by elements of the Khalq, led by an officer named Hafizzulah Amin.
If Amin (who actually carried out the coup from a jail cell) had a model, it was probably Tito of Yugoslavia (or even Sihanouk of Cambodia), but there was little wiggle room for him to maneuver. An independent Afghanistan had considerably less value than a Yugoslavia pried from the Communist Bloc in Europe (and a neutral Cambodia was worth even less than Afghanistan), and the United States was, in fact, already supporting the Mujahedin exiles in Pakistan even before the Soviet invasion.
The Soviets put into effect a remarkably complex operation to wipe out these plans and hammer the Parchami and Khalqi Communists into one Leninist party by the anvil. Their invasion on December 27, 1979 was preceded by mass poisonings of Afghanistan's leaders, disarming a greater part of the army and neutralizing any source of opposition on the part of the government before they could give any orders to resist. Amin was murdered in his boxer shorts in the presidential palace, and thousands of refugees rushed the Pakistani border.
Once there, they discovered a complex web of rebel organizations and front groups, including one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar had of course not been involved in the various coups and counter-coups by leftist factions in Kabul, though he and the nucleus of Mujahids indirectly played a part in them. According to most, the entire Islamist Movement among Afghan students had been brought about in reaction to the constant proselytizing by leftists at the universities, and Hekmatyar, as a disaffected Marxist, was by no means atypical. He served several stints in jail in the early 1970s (one as a suspect in the murder of Saydal Sukhandan, student leader of yet another Communist faction, this one Maoist in orientation).
Misha Pozhininsky writes: "I heard from the intelligence [in the Red Army] that Hekmatyar was sometimes cooperating with us. He had been friendly with Amin, there were some kind of negotiations between the two before we went in. The Khalqis were how they were, they would deal with anyone. Hekmatyar was a bandit, but his ideology was not so different from them. He thought he could go about it using Islam, to build a socialist system."
When he fled to Pakistan in 1973 following Daoud's coup and a round-up of Islamist activists, he was officially a member of Rabbani's Jamiyyat faction, and it was under their flag that on July 22, 1975 Hekmatyar returned to his native soil to participate in a massive, albeit misguided, Islamic uprising. Hekmatyar later claimed to have instigated the insurrection in Panjshir, which was the most successful. Other witnesses placed him in Laghman, where militants attacked government buildings and made little headway. Another engineering student destined for future notoriety (some good, some not so good), Ahmed Shah Massoud, was injured in the insurrection as the Jamiyyat activists beat a retreat to Peshawar.
By the time of the Soviet invasion, the exiles in Pakistan were irrevocably split. The original Jamiyyat imploded following the failed 1975 uprising, with Hekmatyar forming the Hizb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) with Qazi Muhammed Amin Wiqad (then actually the more prominent of the two).
Among the new refugees were a great many village elders, intellectuals of every political stripe, and the usual rabble out of which great patriots and pathetic diasporas are formed. Long-standing Afghan exiles resented the newcomers' usurpation of what they considered their hard-earned leadership of the resistance. The refugees on the other hand didn't care about factionalism and urged the various armed factions to unite for the common struggle of defeating the Communists in Kabul. The ones with the guns, of course, won the internecine struggle for leadership among the Afghans. Jamiyyat and Hizb activists together took aim at those who posed the greatest threat to their authority, particular monarchist agents of the deposed King Zahir Shah, who was still the most popular figure in Afghanistan.
Throughout the 1970s, the Pakistani government had graciously hosted the Afghan rebels, but harboured few delusions of seeing them come to power in Kabul. They were merely threatening the Afghan government a bit, and, in case of any incursion across the Durand Line splitting the two countries (a common threat between 1945 and 1973), retaining the ability to dispatch a home-grown force to repel the Afghan army. Now, there was considerably more interest in a united and powerful Mujahedin which might be able to give the mighty Red Army a bloody nose. The Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) bureau approached the exiles with renewed interest, their American friends in tow.
ISI Chief Hamid Gul was the godfather of Afghan Mujahedin as we know it today, and, as Hekmatyar was the one who benefited the most from his machinations, the architect of the latter's sudden ascension to the heights of the opposition. Hekmatyar and Wiqad negotiated a rapprochement with the Jamiyyat in 1978. Under mysterious circumstances, they withdrew from the arrangement, and similarly withdrew from coalition agreements in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1984.
A report prepared by a US House subcommittee more than a decade later alleged that the CIA had become aware of the role Gul and the ISI-sponsored Afghan Committee was playing in the Mujahedin - that the ISI was consciously elevating some of the least popular but most radical groups - most prominently, Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami - to the leadership of the Mujahedin and cultivating a fundamentalist ideology among new recruits. As a result, the Americans asked the King of Saudi Arabia to broker a new agreement, to balance out the ISI with his authority.
As a result of the King's mediation, the Islamic Union of Mujahedin - really, nothing more than consultative council of the leading Mujahids and their factions - was formed in 1985, and held up for about four years. An unforeseen side-effect of the King's new-found prominence in the Afghan resistance was the thousands of new recruits from around the world who saw in the turbaned rebels the stormtroopers of jihad and left for Afghanistan to get some hands-on training in firing heavy weapons and beheading kaffirs in Pakhtia and Kandahar.
In the same year, the United States intensified their material support to the Mujahedin (and of course, they had a role in recruiting some of the future Talebaniacs and al-Qaeda capos, too). Previously, diplomatic sensitivity required the Americans to acquire and hand over Soviet-made weapons which couldn't be traced back to them - primarily, weapons from former Soviet clients such as Egypt. Suddenly, a new spirit of openness pervaded the Reagan Administration and high-tech American weaponry was being distributed among the factions in Peshawar. Among them were Stinger surface-to-air missiles. The first Stinger was fired by a Hizb-e-Islami soldier near Jalalabad on September 25, 1986. The Soviet Air Force dominated the skies, but their advantage was soon neutralized in spite of the Mujahedin lacking any sort of aircraft. Stingers traced back to the Afghan Mujahedin have since been located in Chechnya, Tajikistan and the Philippines.
If one accepts the rationale behind the United States in funding the Mujahedin as an anti-Soviet group, then one can't doubt the wisdom of Hekmatyar being among the prime recipients of their largesse. He was dirty, an uninspiring commander but nevertheless an integral part of the Afghan resistance forces. Marginalizing him at the time might very well have crippled the Mujahedin, as Hizb-e-Islami had become far and away the most popular among the Pashtuns, while the Jamiyyat - then, as now - was popular among Afghanistan's Tajik minority. Hekmatyar's barbarity can only be measured by degrees on a scale where his rival warlords also figure prominently.
Najibullah, the Soviet puppet (and a henchmen in the Khad, or Afghan secret police) held on for some three years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, mostly due to disunity among the Mujahedin. Hizb-e-Islami was the first to liberate Konar province, which has remained something of a Hekmatyar stronghold ever since. It was the scene of violent looting, which came to be expected when the warlords rolled into town.
The Afghan refugees - there were now millions of them in and near Peshawar - attempted to form a new government and King Zahir Shah's followers were still an active force. If they were recalcitrant to overtures by "civilians" before, Hekmatyar and the rest of the Mujahedin were insistent that those who fought for the country were the ones - the only ones - who had anything to say about its future government. A rally which signaled the last hurrah for the secularists was dispersed by Hizb gunmen, after which Hekmatyar warned that "No one can rule Afghanistan without the Mujahedin." No one, it turned out, would be able to rule it with them, either.
An ambush of Jamiyyat troops by Hizb supporters augured the resumption of the long-running, hot-and-cold rivalry between the two factions, who had merely ignored each other (and never cooperated - Hizb wound up with plenty of weapons which had been intended for Jamiyyat as well as the smaller Mujahedin groups) under the fiction of the Islamic Union of Mujahedin.
Hizb and Jamiyyat would become rivals in every area, including, oddly enough, the Afghan Communist Party. The Soviets had long ago given up trying to heal the rent between Khalqis and Parchamis. After the withdrawal, they continued funding Najibullah's forces (particularly the brutal pro-Soviet militia up north run by Uzbek Rashid Dostem), but this ended with a bilateral agreement between US Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin on September 13, 1991, and was sealed when the Soviet Union dissolved. Najibullah survived at least five coups in 1989 alone, most of them from diehards in one faction or another. Negotiating the defection of Parchami and Khalqi commanders (whose soldiers would instinctively follow their paymasters) became a heated competition, with Jamiyyat by and large receiving the influx of Parchamis, and Hekmatyar's Hizb the Khalqis.
The United Nations arrived in 1992 to try to broker the peaceful dissolution of Najibullah's regime and the formation of a new government which would please all the powerful warlords. They had almost succeeded (well, maybe) when Jamiyyat commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the recent defector Dostem and other commanders (nearly all of them representing Afghanistan's minorities) succeeded in infiltrating and capturing Kabul. Hekmatyar had been cut completely out of the deal. His forces moved quickly however, and were able to seize the southern part of the city from a nearby stronghold.
The true prize of Kabul - besides the fact that it was almost the only city nearly untouched by the war in the whole of a devastated country - was the prime stockpiles Najibullah had stored up in advance of the Soviet withdrawal. Even better armed than they had been before, the two factions - and the several other factions within the uneasy Massoud-Dostem coalition - eyed each other warily. It was peace, sort of.
Pakistan attempted to form a new coalition government in the Peshawar Accords. For all that was later written about Hekmatyar being a creation of the ISI, Hizb-e-Islami forces wound up boycotting the talks. The new Afghan government emerged with Massoud named as Minister of Defense under a transitional leader, with Hizb invited to nominate a candidate of their choosing as Prime Minister. In Afghanistan, power was clearly going to devolve to the one who could legitimize his own forces as a national army, and that wasn't Hekmatyar.
Hizb forces were soon expelled from the capital by the other factions. They had united against Hekmatyar, then turned against each other and much of the city was destroyed. Hizb hovered above them all, raining Egyptian-issue SAKR-20 rockets on Kabul, killing an estimated 1,000 people in August 1992 alone.
Pakistan announced a do-over. New accords were signed in Islamabad to try it again. Hekmatyar was again named Prime Minister, though this time Massoud was sacked as Defense Minister - a crude play for power that the Pakistanis went along with. Hekmatyar signed and was sworn in in mid-June 1993.
The way the story normally goes is that Hekmatyar split from the coalition and subsequently destroyed Kabul. In fact, Massoud's forces were at least as involved in the 1992 bloodshed as Hekmatyar's militia. The two were at it again in late 1993 and 1994, with the shifty Dostem this time allied to Hekmatyar against Massoud. The fighting killed about 25,000 people in Kabul, now a ruin under siege. Fighting on Hekmatyar's side were quite a few Arabs and others who had volunteered in the war against the Soviets and never went home.
It was perfidious Pakistan that once again brought the rivals together, but not as everyone might have planned. The Taleban militia had risen from the dust of the Afghan refugee madrassahs, seizing Kandahar and bulldozing through militia forces in a crescent across Afghanistan. Hekmatyar complained but it was clear that the ISI had made their choice (General Gul was by now retired, but remained a constant presence as he spoke of his dream of using the dead country next door to create the perfect kingdom of Allah on earth.) In response to the new threat, Rabbani and Massoud met with Hekmatyar and agreed on forming a united front, just as they had against the Soviets. Hekmatyar returned to Kabul in 1996 but was expelled within a matter of months by the lightly-armed, barely-trained Sunday school students in black turbans, fighting under a plain white flag.
Hekmatyar made a few flying visits to his homeland, but spent most of the next six years in Iran. It was unclear whether or not he remained in alliance with Rabbani, Massoud and Dostem, though he scarcely had a movement to lead anymore as many of his commanders had gone over with their units to the new kids in Kandahar. Mullah Omar, the new One-Eyed King, had been one of Hekmatyar's old collaborators, and the avowed aims of Hizb and the Taleban were much the same, even if the reality of what they implemented on the ground was not.
In exile, Hekmatyar aged about twenty years in a quarter of the time. He became fat, the colour of his beard betraying the onset of age. Many of the foreign correspondents who met him in Iran barely recognized him. The Iranians for their part kept him under close surveillance, not least of all because of the enmity he had held for the Hazara and other Shi'ite groups among the Afghan Mujahedin.
Hekmatyar was little more than a minor irritant during the American intervention in Afghanistan on behalf of the Northern Alliance. He played the old Muj card - the self-proclaimed leader against the "new occupation," and claimed to be negotiating with both the Taleban and elements of the Northern Alliance. It was a farce, and a rather poor one since Hizb-e-Islami was a fairly tiny movement with practically no presence in Afghanistan anymore. Even the Afghans, who could forgive Satan himself if he had enough minions under arms, didn't consider him trustworthy. It's a poor hand, but the only one Hekmatyar has left to play.
In April of 2002, police and peacekeepers in Kabul rounded up between 150 and 200 suspects of an alleged plot to assassinate interim leader Hamid Karzai and "disrupt the coalition government." Hekmatyar was accused almost immediately of orchestrating the plot. Karzai might have asked for his extradition (he's also wanted on the hilarious charge of committing war crimes during the siege of Kabul, which half the current Afghan government also participated in), but he was too late: on February 26, the Iranians had expelled Hekmatyar from the country after closing the offices of Hizb-e-Islami the month before.
In fact, in March of 2002, Hekmatyar had allegedly made an overture to join the coalition government. As before, the powers already ensconced in Kabul saw little reason to cut another partner into the deal, particularly one as weak as Hekmatyar had become.
His associates stepped up propaganda in Konar province as well as in Peshawar. The Pakistani police picked up several Hizb members, later revealed to be members of Hekmatyar's family, probably in an attempt to find out his whereabouts.
It was a lot of work to go through for someone who was washed-up. That Hekmatyar was still feared was revealed by anonymous sources from the US Defense Department who tipped off the New York Times that Hekmatyar was the target of a secret, high-tech assassination by the CIA. On May 16, 2002, an unmanned Predator aircraft had allegedly zeroed in on its target in Konar province and opened fire with a modified anti-tank missile. More than thirty people were injured; Hekmatyar was not among them. American and local forces engaged in another highly visible operation to locate and kill Hekmatyar in Konar in September of 2002, also without success.
In February of 2003, the United States officially placed Hekmatyar on a wanted list of terrorist suspects, behind only Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden himself. The American authorities have said that they consider anyone who has made threats against Americans a valid target in Afghanistan or anywhere else, and Hekmatyar has certainly made plenty of those. Karzai fears him, and it's become increasingly obvious that the coalition forces believe that even if Hekmatyar doesn't have much of an army besides some Taleban fugitives and a bit of naive Arab backing, he's as much of a threat to the foreigners in Afghanistan today as he was during the salad days of the Mujahedin, when no less a figure than Ronald Reagan baptized him as one of the "moral equivalents of the Founding Fathers."
There are now around 7,000 American troops in Afghanistan, compared to about a quarter-million in a ring of steel around Iraq. It's important not to confuse desperation with rebellion, and to acknowledge just how poor Hekmatyar's reputation in Afghanistan (as well as just about every other Mujahedin leader not sainted by Soviet or Taleban shrapnel) has become. But, though a year ago nothing seemed much less likely, it appears that Hekmatyar still might have a bit more to write in the story of Afghanistan before he's through.