INTERVIEW
 
Starving Wolves: The Slow Death of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami
Afgha.com
May 28, 2007
The recent assassination of Ustad Farid, a top Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam) representative turned Meshrano Jirga member, is just the latest chink out of the armor of the once mighty Mujahideen faction. In a scene becoming more frequent, unknown masked assailants drove up to Farid’s residence in northern Kabul and unleashed a short burst of gun fire hitting and killing him on the spot.

Farid was one of Hekmatyar’s senior officials before changing sides to the United Islamic Front (‘Northern Alliance’) after the Taliban came to power. He even briefly served as the Afghanistan’s Prime Minister during the tempestuous mujahideen government period in 1992.

“Among the recent killings of Hezb-i-Islami commanders, the May 2 murder of Ustad Farid is most spectacular,” said Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed during a recent interview with Afgha.com. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is a regional expert and author of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: An Afghan Trial from Jihad to Terrorism. “This is the first time that such a high-profile Hezb leader has been assassinated.”

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the disgraced former PM and leader of his own Hezb-i-Islami faction (HIG), quickly issued a statement decrying the killing and blamed ‘the underlings of the US-led foreign forces’ as those responsible.

Hekmatyar’s declaration instantly drew suspicion as he has proven on numerous occasions to shamelessly eliminate his political enemies; even those within his own ranks. “Ustad Farid was one of those key Hezb leaders who chose to be a part of the post-Taliban political process and governance in Afghanistan,” said Dr. Istiaq Ahmed. “Given Hekmatyar’s track-record, anyone from his party from the past joining his opponents naturally becomes a legitimate target.”

Bloody infighting and the hidden hand of Hekmatyar may indeed have played a role in Farid’s death since on May 10, Kabul police arrested Sher Muhammad, a former Hezb commander from the Panshir Valley, in connection to Farid’s assassination.

Ustad Farid’s death accents the political rot currently eating away the corpse of what was once the largest and most feared mujahideen faction in Afghanistan. Other recent deaths, assassinations, arrests and defections have also accelerated the disintegration of the once hardened Hezb faction.

The US Hunt for Hezb Wolves

Since Hekmatyar’s covert return to the region from his Iranian-exile back in 2002, he attempted to align himself militarily with al Qaeda and Taliban forces. His efforts only garnered their limited complicity in various insurgent attacks that commonly plague the rugged northeastern provinces.

The majority of Taliban and al Qaeda forces largely rebuffed his desire to jointly combat the central government and foreign forces, something even the beleaguered Hekmatyar conceded to in a 2007 video interview. Nevertheless, Hekmatyar and his remaining militia of loyalists instantly became targets of the US led Coalition and Afghan security apparatus.

In May of 2002 the CIA narrowly missed assassinating Gulbuddin after firing missiles from a remotely piloted drone at a convoy of vehicles thought to be transporting him. By the following year the US State Department branded Hekmatyar a terrorist and the Coalition’s campaign against him and his loyalists has continued ever since.

Hezb leadership and military targets are routinely routed by US and Afghan forces in their former strongholds of Laghman, Logar, Kabul, Kapisa, Nangarhar, Nuristan and Kunar.

For example, on April 24, the Coalition announced their success in assassinating Fateh Gul Haqparast, an HIG commander with links to the Taliban, during a pre-planned assault in Laghman province. Haqparest orchestrated a series of assaults in Laghman and Kapisa provinces which included assassinations and improvised-bomb attacks.

A similar massive air and ground strike took place in Kunar province in early March. The target was Haji Aminullah, an important HIG commander who reportedly smuggled gems, timber and terrorists. US forces mostly destroyed the compound owned by Haji Amninullah during that vicious weekend-long clash which also left scores of militants dead. It is thought that Aminullah was amongst the many dead bodies yanked from the rubble days later.

Masked Assailants, Murky Motives

However, US led forces are not the only ones hunting the wounded wolves of the Hezb. A rash of killings targeting former Hezb commanders attributed to ‘unknown masked assailants’ has spread across most of Afghanistan. The culprits are likely a mix of vigilantes from rival factions or disgruntled Hekmatyar loyalists lashing out on party detractors.

Take the case of Agha Mir, a former Hezb commander, was murdered after being abducted by a dozen men in Logar, according to the Pajhwok News service. A note was left on his corpse which read, “Anyone caught spying for the government will meet this fate.”

Another HIG commander named Mohammad Yousuf (Bashir Baghlani), who once served as the governor of Badghis and later of Farah province, died of massive heart failure under mysterious circumstances.

Hekmatyar’s megalomaniacal tendencies have spurned almost every political and military alliance he has ever participated in. His years of dirty dealings, side-switching and self-serving politically motivated killings earned him a deceitful reputation, suspicious allies and a litany of enemies.

The mujahideen government of the early 1990’s that replaced the Soviet installed Najibullah regime is a prime example. A failed power sharing agreement between Hekmatyar and factional rivals led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud sparked the unrest that quickly turned Kabul City into an unrecognizable wasteland of wanton destruction and wholesale slaughter.

Most of the factional figureheads who contributed to the civil war, such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, General Dostum, and the remnants of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud’s inner circle recently joined forces under the auspices of a new national political body called Jabhe-ye-Motahed-e-Milli, or the United National Front (UNF). Hezb’s Pakistani office quickly admonished the group’s creation claiming Iran and Russia sponsored the move and called for their end in meddling with Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

The longstanding and bitter political and ideological animosity shared between the two groups is likely responsible for some of the recent factional killings and political assassinations currently destabilizing Afghanistan. (For further details in the killings of HIG commanders since 2003 see our sidebar following this article)

Personnel Drain and the 2004 ‘Mass Mutiny’

Not all recent hits to the Hezb come from deaths or assassinations. Hundreds of former fighters and commanders have surrendered under the Afghan government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Strengthening Commission headed by Professor Sibghatullah Mujaddedi.

The program offers amnesty to former fighters or commanders who pledge to lay down their arms and recognize the Constitution.

Mullah Abdul Jalil and Mullah Mohammad, both HIG commanders in the west, surrendered in early March. Even more surrendered in late February.

In 2005, 10 Hezb commaders, Dr Peer Muhammad, Saeedudin, Haji Syed Noor, Mamoor Awal Khan, Haji Masalaheen, Shah Khan Mangal, Zawazak, Dr Muhammad Zaman, Haji Muhammad Din and Haji Gulbat surrendered.

Although such defections have become commonplace, they are not nearly as detrimental as the utter liquidation of HIG leadership elements when in 2004, an eleven man council led by former HIG chief Khalid Farooqi, entered peace talks with the central government in Kabul. The council became known as the Hezb-i-Islami “Decision Making Council” and included the late Ustad Farid, Hekmatyar’s son-in law Humayun Jarir and “third-tier leadership figures, connected primarily to Nangarhar,” according to David C. Isby.

The decision was quickly condemned by active Hezb members in Pakistan.

The split essentially created a de facto Hezb-i-Islami (Hezb-i-Islami Kabul, HIK) that is now a legitimate political body registered in Kabul and currently holds 34 seats in the Senate, although it did take nearly 2 years for the government to approve the usage its name. Both Haymayun Jarir and Khalid Farooqi won Parliamentary seats in 2005.

Although many of these reformed Hezb-i-Islami members claim they have severed ties with Hekmatyar since his return in 2002, their recent support of a bill calling for amnesty to those accused of committing war crimes, including Hekmatyar, raises concern.

Dr. Ishtiaq warned, “There is always a possibility that Hezb or pro-Hezb elements in the Afghan parliament may, in fact, be indirectly serving the political agenda of Hekmatyar and his Taliban allies.”

Starving Wolves

The mutiny severely damaged the remaining credibility of Hekmatyar’s Hezb as a military and political threat inside of Afghanistan. Militarily speaking, what remains of HI-Hekmatyar is a pack of starving wolves.

Still, some remained loyal to the disjointed and weakened Hezb-i-Islami led by the elusive fugitive Hekmatyar, who like a phantom, occasionally appears in grainy video tapes or audio files. Significantly smaller in number compared to the Hezb of the late 1980’s and 1990’s the active cadres operate mainly in the eastern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Laghman, Logar, Kapisa and Kabul.

Ironically, the highest concentration of Hekmatyar loyalists remains outside of Afghanistan. It is within the dusty epicenter of the Shamshatoo (translation: Little Male Tortoise) refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Peshawar that serves as Hekmatyar’s ad hoc base of operations. His faction’s newspaper, Tanwir, is published and distributed widely throughout the camp.

“His weekly messages are read during Friday prayers as well as when there is an important or special event,” said former HIG council leader Qazi Mohammad Amin Waqad during an interview with the Jamestown Foundation. “For example, during Eid, his message is delivered to the camp, enhancing his strong presence.”

Hekmatyar and his party, although extremely weakened, only manage to survive with a faint pulse from such a life-support sanctuary as the Shamshatoo refugee camp. But despite these current circumstances, the threat of Hekmatyar and his wolf pack cannot be instantly dismissed without Hekmatyar’s death or capture occurring first.

“As long as Hekmatyar remains alive, the Hezb should remain a matter of concern for the Afghan government and its allied international forces fighting insurgency in the war-torn country,” concluded Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed.

Nor is it likely any US or NATO exit strategy will materialize without first eliminating Hekmatyar altogether.

“Hekmatyar himself has been running for life, like other prominent Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. In fact, Hekmatyar has dominated Hezb-i-Islami organization so much that his killing or capture would mean the virtual end of the organization as a potentially credible resurgent force in post-Taliban Afghanistan.”

“The current insurgency is essentially led by the Taliban. However, this does not mean the contribution to this insurgency by Hezb-i-Islami is meaningless,” said Dr. Ishtiaq. “Its renegade commanders still at large such as Kashmir Khan and [Engineer] Obaidullah still pose a threat to Afghanistan, as they are the ones who carry out Hekmatyar’s politically-motivated militarism on the ground in alliance with the Taliban.”

Access interview at afgha.com