Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Return to the Afghan Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 11

The Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Party of Afghanistan, or HIA), sidelined from Afghan politics since the fall of the mujahideen regime to the Taliban in the mid-1990s, has recently reemerged as an aggressive militant group, claiming responsibility for many bloody attacks against Coalition forces and the administration of President Hamid Karzai.

Led by 61-year-old Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—a charismatic engineer, former premier and mujahideen commander once favored by Washington—the HIA most recently claimed responsibility for the April 27 attack on a military parade in Kabul from which President Karzai escaped unharmed, but took the lives of three Afghan citizens, including a member of parliament (Quqnoos, May 25). The Taliban, however, has also claimed responsibility for this attack, leading some to suggest that the attack was a joint operation between the Taliban—which has a weak presence in the north—and Hekmatyar’s followers. Though an apparent attempt to kill President Karzai might appear counterproductive to proposed negotiations between Karzai’s government and Hekmatyar, these proposals, including the possibility of joining the government, have so far all come from the government side (Tolo TV, September 27, 2007). In this sense Hekmatyar’s attack may be viewed as a display of force intended to soften the government position before talks commence.

These offers of talks by the central government indicate the strengthening power of Hekmatyar. Though his name has been largely absent from the Afghan political scene over the last few years, Hekmatyar is now in a position to bargain with the government, conditioning his cooperation on the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the establishment of an interim government followed by general elections (Ariana TV, February 14, May 8; Pakistan Observer, May 10).

Hekmatyar’s Political Base

Born in 1947 in the Imam Sahib district of the Kunduz province of northern Afghanistan, Hekmatyar is a Pashtun, belonging to the Kharoty faction of the Ghilzai tribe. His political career began in 1970 when he adopted a leftist ideology while a student at the engineering faculty of Kabul University.

As a member of the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, his first act of violence was the killing of a member of a rival wing, leading to his imprisonment in 1972. The seizure of power by Daud Khan from King Zahir in 1973 helped him to escape to Pakistan, where in 1975 he became one of the founding members of the HIA (see Terrorism Monitor, September 21, 2006).

During that period the anti-Pakistan policies of the Kabul regime and an emerging Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan helped Hekmatyar catch the eye of the Pakistani leadership and especially the attention of its secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which was increasingly displeased by the efforts of the Kabul regime to turn Pakistani Pashtuns against Islamabad. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and the agreement reached by Pakistan and the Western powers to block the further expansion of the Soviet Union brought Hekmatyar into an advantageous position, as the majority of financial support from the international community to Afghan resistance groups began flowing through him.

Hekmatyar used the Afghan refugee camps of Shamshatoo and Jalozai as recruitment bases for his group (Aina TV, April 22). In these camps, the HIA distributed rations provided by the West for Afghan refugees while also forming a social and political network that operated everything from schools to prisons.

On the other hand Hekmatyar was always accused of spending more time and resources fighting other mujahideen groups than doing battle with the common enemy, not only during the 1979-1989 Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation, but also after the fall of Najibullah Ahmadzai’s communist government to the mujahideen in 1992. Hekmatyar’s bombardment of the capital in 1994, for instance, is said to have resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 civilians (Aina TV, May 23, 2007). As a result of this bloodshed, relatively modern-minded residents put up no resistance against the entrance of the fanatically religious Taliban to Kabul in 1996, which eventually led Hekmatyar’s foreign supporters—such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—to turn against him, preferring to lend their weight instead to the Taliban.

Disgraced by his former allies, Hekmatyar went to Iran in 1997, sharing with its rulers a common hatred of the Taliban. But almost six years of isolation in Tehran lost him his power base back home, as the majority of his former party members abandoned their resistance or changed sides and joined the Taliban.

The Iranians may have regarded him as a potentially useful Pashtun card to have up their sleeve, but in practice he turned out to be more of a liability. Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he was not even invited to the Bonn Conference where the foundation of the new Afghan government was being laid. In Hekmatyar’s view, this left no alternative but to oppose the new government. Hekmatyar paid a high price for his opposition to the new Afghan government, as intensive pressure from the United States and the Karzai administration led the Iranian government to expel him in February 2002 and freeze his accounts. On February 19, 2003, the U.S. State Department designated him a global terrorist.

While his former allies joined the Afghan government in one form or another, Hekmatyar reportedly lives today in an unknown location in southeastern Afghanistan, somewhere close to the Pakistani border. This location in his decades-old power base has brought him some advantages, as today he is one of the last of the former mujahid leaders to refuse to join the government and who still talks about removing foreign troops from the country by force. In a recent and rare interview, Hekmatyar expanded on his demands:

“We want all foreign forces to leave immediately without any condition. This is the demand of the entire Afghan nation. Naturally, if it is within their power, they will never leave Afghanistan and Iraq. They will only leave if staying becomes extremely expensive as compared to leaving. No imperial power leaves its domain willingly—they leave under compulsion. The English left the subcontinent, Africa and Asia only when they were forced to leave. What have the Americans got out of their occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq? What they wanted from the occupation was to have control of the Central Asian and Iraqi oil and to firmly establish Israel in the Middle East. Islamic renaissance shall be suppressed and al-Qaeda will be eliminated. Please tell me which of these objectives they have achieved?” (CBS, May 6; Shahadat, May 19)

A Shifting Power Structure

The problem of dealing with Hekmatyar is the question that now dominates the local Afghan press. Despite clear opposition by his Western allies, particularly those in Washington, Karzai is increasingly left with no other option than to engage with Hekmatyar in one way or another.

According to the local press, during the last year there have been several occasions when Karzai has offered to open talks, suggesting that present opponents of the government could take official posts such as deputy minister or head of department. Hekmatyar was not named personally for these posts, but there is little doubt that he was one of the “opponents of the government” that Karzai was referring to (Tolo TV, September 29, 2007).

President Karzai may have many reasons to soften his approach toward Hekmatyar, but one of them is surely Hekmatyar’s increasing involvement in violent activities, the most recent being the attack of April 27. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack but more than one local newspaper suggested that while the Taliban is an obvious suspect, the attack seems more the act of organized and experienced militants, most probably assisted by high-ranking Afghan officials in penetrating a supposedly secure area (Kabul Weekly, April 30; Tolo TV, April 27). HIA members—who, according to Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sardar Rahmanoglu, today occupy around 30 to 40 percent of government offices, from cabinet ministers to provisional and other government posts—are better placed than the Taliban to cause harm to the government or its members (Aina TV, April 22).

However this is not the only event that signals the re-empowering of HIA and Hekmatyar. An HIA spokesperson has recently claimed responsibility for many other attacks against the government and foreign troops. These include shooting down a helicopter containing foreign troops in the Laghman province (Pajwak News Agency, January 2), forcing a U.S. military helicopter to make an emergency landing after being shot in the Sarubi district of Kabul (Pajwak News Agency, January 22) and blowing up a Kabul police vehicle in March, which the spokesperson claimed took the lives of 10 soldiers (Pajwak News Agency, January 22; AIP March 8).

Hekmatyar still maintains his bases in Afghanistan and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, such as in the crowded Shamshatoo camp in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. There, the HIA runs madrassas, has set up bases for the governing council of the party and publishes its weekly journal, Tanweer, which commonly employs jihadist slogans against the Karzai administration and foreign troops in Afghanistan (Ariana TV, December 12, 2007; Monthly Kabul Direct, October 2007).

From the security perspective, the timing of Hekmatyar’s re-emergence is highly critical, as today Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are increasingly being cornered by Coalition forces. Some elements of the Taliban are disorganized and frustrated, especially after the death of commander Mullah Dadullah last year. The HIA, under the leadership of an experienced guerrilla strategist, is becoming an attractive proposition for not only the Taliban fighters, but all of those opposing the Karzai government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Many Taliban fighters were attached to Hekmatyar’s forces in the past in one form or another, so many are basically returning to their former leader, though the numbers involved are unclear.

On the other hand, the HIA is already well-placed within the government, being able to encircle President Karzai politically. As Hekmatyar’s former Deputy Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad notes: “The party has two to three [Cabinet] ministers, five governors, a deputy minister and many other high ranking officials” (Monthly Kabul Direct, October 2007).


These realities leave no alternative for President Karzai but to try to bring Hekmatyar under the umbrella of the government. If he manages this, he will also gain a measure of legitimacy and popularity among the Pashtun tribes, a popularity he currently lacks. This would then help Karzai to win the support of the religious circles of the Pashtun tribes against the Taliban (Daily Cheragh, June 28, 2007).

Not only does Hekmatyar not trust the government’s intentions behind the peace talks, but he places as a condition of his cooperation with the government the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan (Hasht-e Sobh, May 19). Due to the reality on the ground, President Karzai is unlikely to accept such a deal.

In addition, President Karzai has other serious obstacles to the appointment of Hekmatyar to the administration. Some of his government partners, such as former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and current Parliamentary Speaker Yunus Qanuni, are unlikely to welcome such a move, given almost three decades of hostility with Hekmatyar (Hasht-e Sobh, May 5). Short of pursuing the military option, the government may seek the mediation of influential regional players like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia in reaching a deal with Hekmatyar (Monthly Kabul Direct, October 2007). With Hekmatyar having emerged as a legitimate threat, Karzai needs to act quickly if he does not wish to see the emergence of another serious security challenge to the central administration.