Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: The Rise and Fall of an Afghan Warlord

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 2

Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (The Islamic Party of Afghanistan or HIA), which once ranked as the most powerful resistance party in the country, is increasingly sidelined and under pressure from various quarters, including coalition forces and the new Afghan government. Moreover, HIA is having to contend with mass desertions from its rank and file. While some Afghan analysts are often tempted to predict the revival of the old warring elites, as far as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his party are concerned, this is a most unlikely prospect. Nonetheless, given his charisma, renowned organizational skills and consistent activism over the past three volatile decades, Hekmatyar can not be expected to disappear altogether from the Afghan scene in the foreseeable future.

From the 1980s through the early 1990s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s HIA received the lion’s share of arms and funds that came into Afghanistan from Arab and Western countries. The favorite party of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) among the seven Peshawar-based militant organizations, Hekmatyar became the first Prime Minister after the Peshawar accord because of his Pakistani backing. However, in a long and bitter dispute with his archrival Ahmad Shah Masoud, Hekmatyar’s forces targeted the capital with heavy artillery deployed from their bases in southern Afghanistan, thus practically ruining Kabul and killing an estimated 25,000 people, mostly civilians. [1]

Hekmatyar: A Natural Leader in the Making

Born to a Kharuti Pashtun immigrant family in the northern province of Kunduz, Hekmatyar started his political career as a leftist and later became a disciple of Sayyed Qutb and the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) movement, originally established by Hassan al-Bana in Egypt in the 1920s. Although called ‘the Engineer’, he never finished his studies in the faculty of engineering. After a violent clash with a pro-Chinese communist group in 1972, he was charged with the death of one of its leaders and imprisoned with two other Islamists.

Following the coup that brought Mohammad Daud to power in 1973, Hekmatyar was released from prison and left the country for Pakistan. President Daud, a champion of Great Pashtunistan, comprising the two contiguous provinces bordering Afghanistan, naturally alarmed the Pakistani ruling elites. With Daud’s ascendance to power, the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan, moved to counter his moves. Among the measures the Bhutto government implemented was helping Hekmatyar establish an Islamist movement. Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the ISI, seized the opportunity and recruited Hekmatyar, initially using him against the Pashtun irredentist leader Daud and later against the Soviets. It was during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq that the HIA was firmly established as the most organized, powerful and at times the most ruthless of the seven party alliance created and supported by Pakistan.

HIA split in 1979 with the defection of ultra-conservative Maulawi M. Younus Khalis. Although, the septuagenarian mullah took some of the best commanders with him, the HIA wing under Hekmatyar continued to dominate the Afghan resistance, in large measure because of Pakistan’s instinctive preference for the charismatic Pashtun leader. In fact the split merely formalized a perennial dichotomy within the HIA; the conservative and traditional clerical wing of the party sided with Khalis and the young and ideologically minded activists remained loyal to Hekmatyar.

Although the HIA faction under Hekmatyar was the most heavily armed, funded and publicized organization of the resistance, it did little of the real fighting against the Soviets. Instead, it was responsible for most of the assassinations, purges and infighting with rival groups and personalities. It ruled and dominated the Afghan scene with intimidation, fear and sheer terror.

Nonetheless, after the withdrawal of the Soviets and the collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s regime, Hekmatyar’s HIA remained the most powerful and best equipped organization. Hekmatyar and his Pakistani sponsors erroneously anticipated a quick seizure of power by the HIA. However, based on the Jabalurseraj Agreement, thrashed out among Ahmad Shah Masoud of the Tajiks, Abdul Ali Mazari of the Hazaras and Abdur Rashid Dostum of the Uzbeks, the strategic center and garrisons in Kabul were taken over by these three groups. Hekmatyar’s forces were left out of the city, and in a futile attempt to reverse this misfortune, HIA forces shelled the city indiscriminately. Hekmatyar never assumed the premiership offered to him as a concession. Instead he delegated it to Ustad Farid, a hitherto little known party apparatchik. Hekmatyar later joined a coordination council (Shora-e-Hamahangi) with Dostum and Mazari against President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defense minister Masoud.

With Hekmatyar’s dream of securing dominance in Afghanistan in tatters, and with the country embroiled in a seemingly intractable fratricidal conflict, Pakistan started to play the Taliban card.

The Rise of the Taliban and Mullah Omar

The Taliban movement was effectively created under the direct supervision of retired general Naseerullah Baber, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister. The Taliban, under the leadership of the notoriously reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar, at first tried to secure control over Kandahar. Ironically, the first casualty of their onslaught was a well known Hekmatyar commander named Sarkateb. President Rabbani and Commander Masoud, who were involved in bitter factional war in Kabul with numerous enemies, initially welcomed the Taliban.

The Taliban’s advance to the north, east and west of the country seemed unstoppable and one by one the commanders and leaders who had dominated the country for so long fled before them. Ismael Khan, the powerful Emir of the western provinces abandoned his power base in the face of the relentless Taliban advance and fled to Iran; Haji Qadeer, the chairman of the eastern council, likewise fled his base to Peshawar; as the Taliban approached Kabul, Hekmatyar fled his base south of the city, effectively abandoning everything he had built over the years; the Hazara Shia leader Abdul Ali Mazari was captured and tortured to death and President Rabbani and Masoud fled the city to the safety of the north.

Of the two main fighting factions, namely the Iran-backed Shia Hezb-e-Wahdat (Unity Party) of Mazari and Hekmatyar’s HIA, the latter suffered the heaviest blows. After the fall of Kabul in September 1996, Wahdat still maintained some forces and bases in the central and northern regions of Afghanistan, but Hekmatyar’s once powerful bases in the eastern and southern provinces were completely overrun by the Taliban, their arms and ammunitions confiscated, thus forcing the rank and file to either join the Taliban or desert altogether.

Disheartened by this cataclysmic defeat and disgusted by the betrayal of his erstwhile Pakistani sponsors, Hekmatyar moved to Iran. He remained there until early 2002, when the Iranian government, under pressure from the U.S., was forced to show him the door. Following his expulsion from Iran, there has not been any credible information pointing to his exact whereabouts. According to most sources, Hekmatyar initially went to Pakistan and subsequently moved to eastern and perhaps southern Afghanistan, from where he was allegedly organizing attacks against the U.S. led coalition forces. No major operation has been attributed to him in the region, except an attack in mid 2004 in the northern city of Kunduz in which 11 Chinese workers were killed. [2] However, even that attack was attributed to rivalry between various groups in the north and Hekmatyar himself has vehemently denied his party’s involvement in the incident. All the same, he has been declared a wanted terrorist by the U.S.-led coalition forces. Hekmatyar has become a fugitive, like Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden whose cause he has ostensibly embraced.

Nonetheless, in an increasingly desperate and opportunistic gesture, Hekmatyar recently tried to change course and join the American backed Afghan government of President Karzai. Although a delegation of HIA that met with Hamid Karzai in early May in Kabul claimed to have acted on their own initiative, it is very unlikely that they did not receive a green light from the once all-powerful leader. In fact, according to some reports Hekmatyar “provisionally” agreed to a rapprochement with the Karzai government. [3] As yet, nothing has come out of a nine point agreement drawn up last May. In another ominous development, the Iranian government announced recently that it had frozen the accounts of HIA in four Iranian cities. [4]


The status and fortunes of Hekmatyar and his party look increasingly bleak for three reasons. Firstly, HIA no longer has the military muscle to affect events in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar’s commanders and fighters have long joined the Taliban or disbanded, save a few hardcore loyalists that cannot regroup due to lack of funds or enthusiasm. Secondly, HIA is politically out of tune with the new trends in Afghanistan. Afghans are tired of war and disillusioned by the hardcore Islamists such as Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, Rabbani and the likes. Thirdly, from a social and cultural perspective, Hekmatyar and his party are notorious for their brutality, extreme Pashtun nationalism and religious zealotry. For most people there is little that separates them from the Taliban. Both promote a brutal and mono-ethnic theocracy that is, broadly speaking, both disliked by native Pashtuns and an anathema to non-Pashtuns. These factors, combined with the presence of U.S. forces in the country, render the possible revival of Hekmatyar and the HIA most unlikely.

Mr. Jamali is a private sector analyst and expert on South Asian political and security issues.


1. Pepe Escobar, “The Last Battle, Part I: Exit Osama, Enter Hekmatyar”, Asia Times on Line, September 11, 2002.

2. “Mystery Shrouds Killing of 11 Chinese in Afghanistan”, Xinhua, June 21, 2004.

3. “Syed Saleem Shahzad, Afghanistan: Hekmatyar Changes Color Again”, Asia Times on Line, April 3, 2004.

4. “Iran Freezes Afghan Warlord Hekmatyar Assets”, Pakistan Times, December 18, 2004.