Like a buzzing mosquito that just won’t go away, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is back in the news. He sent a video from his unknown hideout in Pakistan, asking for reconciliation with Afghanistan’s government and presenting himself as a peacemaker.
This is the same Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who was branded a global terrorist by the United States, founded the militant Hezb-i-Islami group and is blamed for killing thousands of his fellow Afghan citizens with indiscriminate artillery shelling during the 1990’s civil war.
Hekmatyar also served briefly as Prime Minister of Afghanistan, a position he “earned” by virtue of a coup d’etat in Kabul. At age 68, after living in exile in Iran and Pakistan for decades, he is now trying to carve out a new position of power for himself with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
President Ghani has extended an olive branch of peace to various factions, including the Taliban, and Hekmatyar looks to exploit those soft sentiments for a ticket back into Afghanistan. He says he wants a “real and fair peace.”
Instead, I believe Hekmatyar covets a supreme-leader role for himself, like Kim Jong-Un in North Korea or Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei in Iran.
I have been familiar with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar since our college days together, when we both attended Kabul University in the early 1970’s. He was a freshman in the engineering department while I was in law school. I remember him as a very good orator. He was already assembling supporters, mostly rural young Pashtuns from the Ghilzai tribes.
One day he climbed a tree and delivered a long speech, railing against the Afghan government for not taking action against Maoist groups, such as the student Progressive Youth Organization (PYO). Hekmatyar’s supporters attacked the PYO students with rocks, and multiple sources say that Hekmatyar personally assassinated poet Saydal Sokhandan, a prominent PYO activist. It may have been his first murder, but it certainly wasn’t his last. To escape arrest, Hekmatyar fled to Pakistan.
Hekmatyar became a master at switching sides in Afghanistan’s never-ending wars. He fought Soviet Union forces during the 1980s, then engaged in infanticide during a civil war with the mujahideen. Although he took CIA funding to help fight the Soviets, his military wing repeatedly attacked Afghan and U.S. forces – including a 2013 car bombing that killed 16 persons, including six American advisers in Kabul.
In his book The Main Enemy, former CIA officer Milt Bearden wrote that “Hekmatyar thought nothing of ordering an execution for a slight breach of party discipline.”
He is well-known for being brutal, ruthless, ungrateful and a notorious warlord who would do anything to serve his own purposes. His latest move toward “peace” was triggered by a confluence of events.
Since taking office in 2014, President Ghani has been seeking a reconciliation with insurgents. The Taliban refused and intensified their attacks on Afghan security forces.
Equally desperate for tranquility is Afghanistan’s Peace High Council, established in 2010 by former president Hamid Karzai. It has failed to produce anything tangible. Under public pressure because of its bloated budget and staff and a marked lack of results, the Peace High Council is pushing to show some kind of progress, no matter what the price.
Hekmatyar is trying to seize this opportunity to make his next move. His Hezb-i-Islami party fragmented over the years, and most of his military wing defected and joined the Karzai government. He also lost support among Pashtuns who were once the backbone of his party.
Anyone who dreams of ruling Afghanistan must carry the support of the Pashtun-dominated south, from which Afghan kings and the Taliban hailed. The traditional south would rather be ruled by the Taliban, which doesn’t pose a threat to its lifestyle, than by someone who wants to impose a party platform.
Hekmatyar’s image in the south was further damaged when he reportedly took sides with Al Qaeda against the Taliban.
If anything is certain about Hekmatyar, it is that he has become predictable. He is an opportunist and will not miss a chance to quench his never-ending thirst for power. I believe that his peace overture with the embattled Ghani government is a gambit. He still has many of his ex-commanders and loyalists in high positions within the Afghan government and parliament.
If Hekmatyar were welcomed back into a position of influence in Afghanistan, I see three possible scenarios:
(1) Hekmatyar stirs trouble by demanding more power for his close associates. This further polarizes and widens the Afghan rivalries, especially between two large ethnic groups: the Pashtun, who are behind President Ghani, and the Tajik, who support Abdullah Abdulla, CEO of the unity government. In the resulting chaos, Hekmatyar tries to emerge as supreme leader.
(2) Hekmatyar finds himself unable to impose his will on a nation that has changed so much since 2001, in terms of expanded human rights, freedom of press and social liberties. His ambitions are squashed, and he flees back to Pakistan.
(3) Hekmatyar keeps his promise to live as a responsible citizen. This encourages other insurgents to lay down arms down and join the peace process.
We can hope against hope that the third option is the one that materializes – or we can avoid the terrible risk simply by ignoring the peace offering that is almost certainly a ruse by the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.