New Delhi: Russia Thursday hosted a peace conference between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Moscow, which included officials from the US, China and Pakistan. Present at the meeting was Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In episode 707 of ‘Cut The Clutter’, ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta traces the 45-year-long and bloody journey of Hekmatyar’s rise to prominence.
“After nearly forty years of fighting in Afghanistan, in which several millions were killed, and more than 10 million have been exiled and rendered refugees in neighbouring Pakistan, he (Hekmatyar) seems to have emerged as a victor simply by virtue of the fact that he survived while all other rivals of him at various points have either died or disappeared,” Gupta said.
Who is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Hekmatyar was born to a Khilji tribe in 1949 in the Afghan city of Ghazni. In 1968, he was sent to the military academy but was subsequently expelled “because he was seen as too much of an Islamist”. Following this, he joined the Kabul University where he studied engineering while remaining an active Islamist.
Talking about the political context of Afghanistan at the time, Gupta said, “Afghanistan was meant to be a buffer state between the British empire and Tsarist Russia. But Afghanistan had become Soviet Union’s buffer with the Western forces.”
“So this was a time when it wasn’t safe to be an Islamist,” he added.
At the university, Hekmatyar met Ahmad Shah Massoud, who would go on to be a rival for a long time.
In the mid-1970s, Hekmatyar along with several others, including Massoud, fled to Pakistan because of the Mohammed Daoud Khan government’s crackdown on Islamists.
“By 1976, however, Massoud was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence authorities on suspicion of being a foreign spy and it was widely believed and more or less accepted that it was the doing of Hekmatyar himself,” Gupta said, and added, “So he was a ‘talented’ guy from the beginning.”
Rise to power
The 1970s was also the time when the Islamist uprising had started against the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan. The US saw this as an opportunity to settle scores with the Soviets for the Vietnam war.
Meanwhile, Hekmatyar had joined a larger Islamic group known as Hezb-e-Islami, which he then broke away from, to form the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. The Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin was able to garner influence in three Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
According to Gupta, by 1979-1980, Hekmatyar had become US and Pakistan’s favourite “because he was efficient, young, articulate and clever as hell”.
As a result, Gulbuddin got the “lion’s share” of American equipment, said Gupta, as well as weaponry from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “He was able to impress many people, the Pakistanis, generals, the Americans, English-speaking soldiers, spies and diplomats because he was very well educated and a thoughtful person. Someone with the gift of the gab, in his own language,” Gupta said, and added that Hekmatyar was seen as a minor intellectual in a crowd of mostly illiterate people.
Importantly, Hekmatyar was also known as someone who lacked mercy for either a friend or foe, which earned him the title of the ‘Butcher of Kabul’.
In the 1990s, Hekmatyar had also served as the prime minister of Afghanistan twice for short spells of time.
The turning point
The turning point in Hekmatyar’s life came as a result of his long-time rivalry with Massoud, which had only worsened over the years.
Hekmatyar fought with Massoud’s people and fled towards north Afghanistan after being cornered by the Taliban and Afghan forces, said Gupta. Interestingly, there he found refuge with Massoud who sheltered him and then helped him escape to Iran, where he stayed for six years.
Meanwhile, Hekmatyar kept running the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin in Iran. Following 9/11, he took refuge in Pakistan, because he had patrons in the ISI and the Pakistani Army, said Gupta.
“Then in the course of time over eight to 10 years, he again put together a group and began fighting. He claims credit for having helped Osama bin Laden and Ayan al-Zawahiri escape from Tora Bora mountains, which was under attack from the Americans,” Gupta said.
Hekmatyar’s stature continued to grow and by 2008 he had become a prominent fighter against the Americans. By 2010, he had also established tie-ups with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
In Gupta’s words, the legend of Hekmatyar was seeing a revival.
Then in 2016, Hekmatyar and his group signed a peace deal with the government of Afghanistan and they came overground as all their sins were pardoned. Since then, Hekmatyar has been a part of the establishment and is hopeful of becoming the interim president once a new government comes to power, Gupta said.
“He (Hekmatyar) got one thing right, and that is he survived. And because he survived once again, he’s landed on the right side and sees an opportunity for himself. He’s not someone I want ruling Afghanistan but he is a reality. And he also embodies everything that has gone wrong with Afghanistan with its history of multiple superpower interventions there,” Gupta said.
Watch the full episode here:
(Edited by Myithili Hazarika)