Below is the recent transcript of Afgha.com’s e-interview with regional expert and author of several books, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad. The following questions were conducted during research on the slow decline of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction of Hezb-i-Islami.
Dr. Ishtiaq is author of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: An Afghan Trail from Jihad to Terrorism an authoritative and meticulously researched work on one of the most destabilizing figures in Afghan history.
Q: Recently former Hezb-i-Islami commanders have been gunned down in Logar, Kapisa and Kabul provinces, including Abdul Saboor Farid (Usatad Farid) who once served as PM in the early 1990’s. What motives are likely behind such killings and what group, if any, is the likely suspect?
A: Among the recent killings of Hezb-i-Islami commanders, the May 2 murder of Ustad Farid is most spectacular. This is the first time that such a high-profile Hezb leader has been assassinated. At this stage, it would be premature to comment exactly who sponsored his assassination or the killing of other Hezb commanders in Logar and Kapisa provinces. Kabul’s police chief claims to have captured an assassin, reportedly affiliated with Hezb-e-Islami and motivated by personal vendetta. But we have to wait and see what investigations by the Kabul Police and Parliamentary Panels assigned the job of finding out Abul Saboor Farid’s killer eventually reveal.
However, it would make sense not to rule out the possibility of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar directing these murders. 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. Given Hekmatyar’s track-record, anyone from his party from the past joining his opponents naturally becomes a legitimate target. As Hekmatyar’s entire post-Taliban discourse, expressed in a series or media interviews and press statements, suggests, his list of enemies includes not just the Karzai government and its international supporters but also, and most importantly, those “collaborators” who were once with him but chose to support the post-Taliban political order in Afghanistan.
Q: Does the Hezb-i-Islami of today share any resemblance to the Hezb-i-Islami of the 1990’s as far as strength and numbers or is it a decaying force?
A: I would say the strength and the spirit of Hezb-i-Islami declined as soon as the Taliban forces defeated Hekmatyar-led Hezb-i-Islami forces at their Charasayab stronghold in 1995 and Pakistan chose to abandon Hekmatyar and, instead, support the Taliban. The US-led international campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan since late 2001 has indeed provided Hekmatyar renewed justification to become an ally of his declared former foes, the al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet it can be safely argued that the Hezb-i-Islami of today does not have the same numerical strength and militant potential as it had in the 1990’s.
The post-Taliban situation may have made Hekmatyar relevant to Afghanistan’s current battlefront, but his ability to realize essentially political goals through jihadi militancy is constrained significantly due to a number of factors: One, there have been many top level desertions in the Hezb ranks in recent years. Two, the military odds Hezb, in alliance with Taliban and al-Qaeda, is up against are considerably heavy. For instance, his ability to maneuver support from the state apparatus Pakistan is significantly constrained. Three, 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.
Hezb-i-Islami has been a decaying force since the mid-1990s. By aligning himself with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Hekmatyar may have attempted to rejuvenate the organization. However, 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.
Q 3: In 2004, top ranking HIH commanders such as Khalid Farooqi, Humayun Jarir and others from split from Hekmatyar and struck up a peace agreement with Kabul. The move seemed to have had a huge impact on the party. Would you agree with this assessment?
The March 2004 desertion of top-ranking Hezb members such as Khalid Farooqi was no doubt a major blow to the organization. They reached out to the Karzai administration, opening the way for others to quit the organization and its militancy and contribute to political process in the country.
However, we should remember that people like Humayun Jarir, who also happens to be Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, have long split from him—to be precise, in the mid-90s—holding Hekmatyar responsible for weakening the organization. But, then again, just as we cannot trust Hekmatyar, we cannot trust those who split from his party and join parliament. In recent months, the opposition MPs in the Afghan parliament have attempted to declare amnesty for notorious warlords such as Hekmatyar and Taliban’s spiritual leader Mulla Umar and even proposed talks with the Taliban. 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.
Q 4: Such men as Khalid Farooqi and Ustad Farid were voted in to Parliament but refused to change the name of their group and are still registered as Hezb-i-Islami. Is it fair to label this group and their followers Hezb-i-Islami Kabul since Hekmatyar and his henchmen are still operating under their own Hezb-i-Islami banner?
A: Why not? After all, these people occupied important positions in Hezb-i-Islami under the leadership of Hekmatyar. Whether we like it or not, Hezb-i-Islami was an important force during the anti-Soviet jihad. The organization suffered desertions and splits primarily because Hekmatyar dominated it and never let any other party leader to gain strength to the extent of challenging his domination.
That even his close relatives such as the son-in-law and long-standing friends and confidantes such as Ustad Farid eventually decided to leave him explains the true Machiavellian nature of Hekmatyar when it comes to managing party matters. That was the reason why Maulvi Younus Khalis had split from it in 1979, creating his own Hezb faction.
Given that, we can say that currently Hezb-i-Islami has two factions, one led by Hekmatyar, which we can call Hezb-i-Islami Hekmatyar; and the other led by those who abandoned militancy in recent years and joined the Afghan political process. HIK would be a reasonable title, but, again, we have to be cautious here, because some of them may be acting as a fifth column for Hekmatyar within the existing Afghan political structure.
Q: It had been speculated that Hezb deputies Qtboddin Helal and Dr. Ghayrat Bahir have also split from Hezb-i-Islami. Is this rumor or a likely truth?
A: In the absence of credible proof, it would be speculative to talk about their split from Hezb-i-Islami. Dr Bahir is another son-in-law of Hekmatyar, extremely loyal to him. I am not aware of his activities since his 2002 arrest by Pakistani authorities from Islamabad. What I do remember is that Baheer was always with Hekmatyar at the time when the anti-Soviet jihad was going or even in the years following the Soviet withdrawal.
Likewise, Helal has been loyal to Hekmatyar for years, handling its foreign relations, and the last time I heard about him was in 2003, when he arranged a funeral for Hekmatyar’s mother at Shamshatoo Afghan refugee camp near Peshawar. So, let’s, for now, treat such news as mere rumours.
Q: In March 2007, Hekmatyar released a video tape to the media claiming to have split with the Taliban over a ‘logistics disagreement’ and that his efforts were stalling due to lack of resources, and suggested conditional talks with the Karzai administration. Knowing his involvement with both al Qaeda remnants and Taliban fighters as well as the drug trade in Badakshan, is this likely a bluff by Hekmatyar? Is there any chance any politician or group would negotiate with Hekmatyar and allow him to return to politics in Kabul?
A: It should be treated as a bluff, pure and simple. Hekmatyar is a master political strategist. He makes very calculated political moves. In the prevailing circumstances, whereby an international campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan is under way, Hekmatyar is well aware of the limitations of his militaristic alliance with the Taliban. Therefore, as a second option, he tries to play politics, by proposing “conditional talks”, with the ultimate aim of weakening the Karzai administration and creating splits in Afghan parliament.
Obviously, as long as warlords like Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf call the shots in Afghan parliament and three dozens of Hezb MPs are present in its two houses, voices in support of declaring amnesty for terrorists like Hekmatyar and holding talks with the Taliban and other insurgents will be heard in Afghan parliament. This is despite the fact that HIK MPs in parliament claim to have split from HI-Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar’s aim has always been to enter the Afghan power corridors, and he would always seek indirect support from those political forces that have chosen to join the post-Taliban political process but their hidden agendas do not rule out the possibility of the return to politics of morally bankrupt Afghan figures such as Hekmatyar.
Q: The recent formation of Jabhe-ye-Motahed-e-Milli, or the United National Front (UNF) includes former commanders like Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, Mohammad Fahim, Younus Qanooni, B. Rabbani and some ex-Communist era ministers. The party excludes both Sayaff and Hekmatyar. This move prompted Hekmatyar to denounce the group through a spokesman. Is this political body a further blow to Hekmatyar and will it serve to isolate and alienate him even more so?
A: The formation of UNF is not a good development. First, as we saw in the past, such alliances are formed by those who somehow feel they do not enjoy the same political clout in the country’s power corridors as they once did. All of these Afghan leaders who have formed UNF have one grievance or another against the Karzai government. So, by forming these alliances, they try to assert their respective personalized political authority in Afghan power politics.
Secondly, these alliances are also formed with long term ambitions. For instance, if the insurgency led by the Taliban grows and the NATO-led international commitment to fight insurgency erodes, then in the perception of those who have formed UNF, there has to be a united force to fill the political vacuum, disallowing the Taliban and their allies like Hezb-i-Islami to fill this vacuum.
The creation of UNF is no doubt a blow to Hekmatyar. However, at the same time, it does not augur well for the future of a people who have already suffered enough. Just as the international community is committed to fight insurgency, it should be committed to discourage the formation of alliances such as UNF.
Q: Lastly, it appears Hekmatyar still has some notorious commanders on the loose such as Kashmir Khan, Abdul Salam Hashemi, Engineer Obaidullah, and Munshi Abdul Majid. How serious a threat do they represent and what is your guess on how many Hekmatyar soldiers are still operating compared to the 1990’s?
A: Hezb-i-Islami’s fighting potential has eroded over the years. 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. Its renegade commanders still at large such as Kashmir Khan and 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