New Delhi: He is a former warlord known as the “butcher of Kabul” for pounding the Afghan capital with shells during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. He has endorsed suicide bombings, and, until 2017, featured on the United Nations Security Council list for terrorists.
He heads one of Afghanistan’s most notorious jihadi groups, and has expressed support for the late al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Now, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a 69-year-old qualified engineer, is eyeing a shot at political legitimacy by contesting for the post of presidency in Afghanistan’s 20 July election.
Hekmatyar, who served as Afghanistan’s prime minister for two brief terms before the Taliban’s takeover in 1996, is the leader of the Hizb-e-Islami, one of the country’s powerful jihadi groups.
The group, along with the Taliban, led the nearly two-decade-long resistance to the Afghan government and the presence of US-led foreign forces in the country, but now claims to have had a change of heart.
Since 2017, having secured an amnesty from the Afghan government, Hekmatyar has become a vocal votary of ending the war once and for all.
Trying to position the Hizb-e-Islami as a legitimate political party, Hekmatyar says his men and he had fought relentlessly over the years, but were now keen to arrive at a political settlement.
In an interview to Afghan news channel TOLOnews last month, Hekmatyar added that even the Taliban was now exhausted and wanted the war to come to an end.
This marked another major shift for Hekmatyar, a former fierce opponent of the Taliban now angling to play mediator as the US tries to forge peace with the terror group to draw curtains on this theatre of war.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose administration paved the way for Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation as a mainstream politician, will be among at least three prominent rivals the former prime minister faces in the July presidential election.
Others include Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who took the newly-created post as part of a power-sharing deal with Ghani following allegations of fraud in the 2014 elections, and Shaida Mohammad Abdali, a former Afghan envoy to India.
His reconciliation into the mainstream is being touted as a hopeful development in a country ravaged by decades of strife, but Hekmatyar remains a deeply controversial and polarising figure for Afghans, especially those who lost family or friends in the attacks he led on Kabul’s civilian areas in the 1990s.
Born in 1946, Hekmatyar was educated at the Kabul Military School. He qualified as an engineer from Kabul University. In 1972, he was jailed for two years for “anti-government activities”.
In 1975, Hekmatyar founded the Hizb-e-Islami to fight communism.
For the Afghan resistance fighters battling Soviet occupation in the early 1980s, the main support came from Pakistan — then president Zia-ul-Haq and then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan.
Much after the Russian forces left Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan continued to create disturbances in Afghanistan through the Afghan Bureau of the ISI. Afghanistan gradually entered into an era of civil war with infighting among several mujahideen groups, including Hekmatyar’s.
However, with Zia’s assassination in a plane crash, which also killed Khan, in 1988, Hekmatyar’s movement came to a screeching halt and he started looking more towards the US.
This was reaffirmed by the US secretary of state at the time, George Schultz, who called Zia a “martyr” while also assuring Hekmatyar that the US “would do all it could to ensure their success in freeing Afghanistan”, as mentioned by Brig Mohammad Yousaf in his book Afghanistan — The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower.
It was during this time, around 1990s, that Hekmatyar helped in rescuing and saving former president Hamid Karzai, then Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister, from a prison in Kabul. Karzai had then fled to Peshawar, Pakistan.
Yousaf, who served at ISI’s Afghan Bureau for four years until 1987, said in his book that Hekmatyar was the “best-known and most controversial fundamentalist leader” then and led a frugal life despite being relatively rich.
An “excellent administrator”, he was “ruthless, arrogant, inflexible, a stern disciplinarian and he does not get on with Americans”, the book states.
However, according to Yousaf, Hekmatyar’s biggest mistake was not to acknowledge American hegemony in Afghanistan despite the fact that his jihad movement ran on US aid then.
“From Carter’s paltry $30 million aid to the Afghan resistance to Reagan’s $630 million per year was a huge quantum jump, which had fattened the pockets of Pakistani and Afghan leaders,” former Intelligence Bureau joint director M.K. Dhar wrote in his book, Fulcrum of Evil: ISI-CIA-Al-Qaeda Nexus.
Hekmatyar was of the view that Americans, always hungry for gratitude, made their aid public, which embarrassed him. This stance adversely impacted the jihadi movement and the West increasingly drifted away from the concept.
At one time, Hekmatyar even refused to meet US President Ronald Reagan during the warlord’s visit to New York in 1985. According to Yousaf, “Hekmatyar has never been forgiven by the US” for this.
Escape from Taliban
After Russia’s departure from Afghanistan in 1989, Hekmatyar’s main aim was to form a government.
In the 1990s, Hekmatyar was offered the post of prime minister under the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who came to power in 1992, and held the post twice, from 1993-1994 and 1996-1997.
However, Hekmatyar was forced to flee from Kabul to Iran when the Taliban came to power.
Eventually, he became a supporter of the al-Qaeda “emir”, or chief, Osama Bin Laden.
In 2002, Hekmatyar was expelled from Iran.
On the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, bin Laden asked his followers to embrace “martyrdom” without fear while attacking the enemy, an exhortation to suicide attacks. This view was supported by Hekmatyar, who encouraged suicide bombings, as stated by author Ahmed Rashid in his book Descent into Chaos: The US and the Disaster in Pakistan.
The same year, the US State Department declared him a terrorist for a series of attacks in Kabul.
In 2016, he signed a peace deal with the Afghan government and returned to Kabul in 2017.
As he eyes the next step in breaching the mainstream, Hekmatyar is willing to have Turkey on board for the peace talks with the Taliban on account of his longstanding friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the final aim being a nation free of foreign involvement.
“Afghanistan needs a neutral government which would not have a link to a foreign country,” he said.