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Afghan Warlord in Election Turnaround

Analysts struggle to explain Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s apparently contradictory policy of pursuing war plus ballot success.
By Mina Habib
  • Gulbuddin Hekmatyar pictured in April 2012. (Photo: Omerdon100/Wikimedia Commons)
    Gulbuddin Hekmatyar pictured in April 2012. (Photo: Omerdon100/Wikimedia Commons)

Confusion surrounds an announcement by a major Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar instructing his followers to participate in the forthcoming Afghan presidential election.

Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-e Islami faction and one of the major commanders in the resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1990s, has previously said elections would be illegitimate as long as foreign troops remained in the country.

Since the United States-led invasion of 2001, Hezb-e Islami insurgents under Hekmatyar’s command have been aligned with the Taleban, fighting Afghan government and international troops.

Despite this, some elements of Hezb-e Islami have gone over to the government side, among them Qutbuddin Hilal, a former associate of Hekmatyar now standing in the April 5 presidential election. (A profile of Hilal and the ten other candidates can be found here.) 

A month ago, Hekmatyar took the unprecedented step of calling on his followers to vote in the presidential ballot and endorsing Hilal.

Representatives of the party are also believed to have held meetings with other candidates recently.

In a letter sent out to party leaders, Hekmatyar wrote, “Obtain voting cards and vote for individuals who are either related to the party or are its supporters. Try to prevent the victory of bad candidates.”

In a telephone call with IWPR, party spokesman Ghairat Bahir confirmed that the group had declared in favour of Hilal’s candidacy.

With NATO-led forces due to leave Afghanistan later this year, Kabul is under pressure to engage in peace talks with insurgent groups, although previous discussions with Hekmatyar’s faction have not led to any meaningful agreements.

Hekmatyar’s apparent commitment to a democratic process is not matched by plans to end the jihad against the current Afghanistan administration. Less than a week after Hekmatyar’s letter was circulated, Hezb-e Islami claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Kabul that killed at least two people.

Commentators interviewed by IWPR say it is difficult to explain or reconcile these apparent divergent approaches.

Political analyst Wahid Mozhda said the contradictions reflected complex pressures on Hekmatyar, who he said found himself in a weakened position, stranded in a “political, economic and military vacuum”.

A wanted man for many decades now, the insurgent leader had to remain constantly on the move to avoid capture, Mozhda said, noting that many high-ranking Hezb-e Islami members had peeled away to join the government, and Hekmatyar’s own relatives had reconciled with Kabul.

The decision to take part in elections at a time when foreign forces are still operating in Afghanistan also puts Hezb-e Islami at odds with its Taleban allies.

Mozdha said Hekmatyar now faced pressure from the Taleban to either cooperate with them or withdraw his forces from areas under their control. Frequent clashes were the result.

“Hekmatyar’s current policy and contradictory statements are unprecedented,” he continued, adding that since the insurgent chief’s military capacity had been weakened, he was trying to extend his influence into politics without abandoning the option of using force.

Hekmatyar, one of the main recipients of Western aid during the mujahedin resistance to Soviet domination, remains a deeply controversial figure among Afghans.

After the mujahedin took Kabul in 1992, Hezb-e Islami fought bitterly with other factions in a civil war that left thousands of civilians dead.

The Taleban captured Kabul in 1996, and Hekmatyar sought refuge in Iran, but reappeared after the 2001 invasion to join the anti-Western insurgency.

Matiullah Abasin, a political analyst, said that Hekmatyar had always been inconsistent in his decisions, and accused him of having a poor grasp of Afghanistan’s political realities. Hekmatyar’s decisions were driven by the desire for personal power, he added.

“Hekmatyar thinks he is the wisest of all. He has monopolised all authority in the party from the outset. His men are tired of this situation,” Abasin said. “He suffers from some kind of unquiet mind.”

Abasin said that with so many defections, the warlord was now surrounded by associates who gave him poor advice.

In addition, Abasin said foreign powers were exerting pressure on Hekmatyar to continue the insurgency, although he did not specify which states he believed were behind these efforts.

“I am sure he would have joined the government at the very beginning if it hadn’t been for foreign pressure,” Abasin concluded.

Some analysts believe that Hekmatyar’s decision showed a willingness to choose engagement over violence.

“With his war-and-peace methods and duplicitous statements, Hekmatyar wants to make the government realise that he’s willing to join the political process,” said Abdul Ghafur Lewal, director of the Afghanistan Regional Studies Centre. “However, there are some groups and circles inside and outside the country which oppose him aligning himself with the government because they want the war to continue and they don’t want to lose an armed fighting group.”

Hezb-e Islami spokesman Bahir denied the party had been weakened and said there was nothing contradictory about Hekmatyar’s decision.

“These remarks are absolutely without foundations,” he told IWPR. “Hekmatyar has gone through many ups and downs. The idea that he’s marginalised or ‘in a vacuum’ is the imagining and hallucination of those who can’t bear Hezb-e Islami’s successes.”

Bahir continued, “Every move and every decision made by the Hekmatyar-led Hezb-e Islami is because of its sense of responsibility toward the country. Hezb-e Eslami knows what kind of policy it should adopt, and when. I say explicitly that we are not under any kind of pressure. Our decisions on issues made with wisdom and intellect.”

Some followers of Hekmatyar’s faction expressed support for their leader’s new policy.

“Hekmatyar is one of the strongest leaders in the world,” said Nangarhar university student Rezwanullah Hamim. “Our Hezb-e Islami’s policy is that we must fight against the Americans on the military and political fronts and not leave that arena empty for them.”

He added, “The goal of Hezb-e Islami in supporting a sensible candidate in the elections is to ensure that bad candidates nominated by America are unable to get into power. It does not mean legitimising the elections.”

Ordinary people said that Kabul should talk to anyone who was ready to seek peace.

For Sadoddin, a government employee in the Afghan capital, Hekmatyar’s motives were irrelevant as long as he was ready to lay down his arms.

“For me personally, it doesn’t matter whether Hekmatyar makes contradictory remarks or has an unclear strategy. In the past 12 years, we have heard so many contradictions that Hekmatyar’s don’t account for even a tiny fraction of them,” Sadoddin said.

“The fact that he’s lent his support to the elections shows he’s tired of war. We welcome anyone who will stop fighting. If the government is able, it must prepare the ground for his return as soon as possible.”

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