By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Reiterating a long-standing demand for quick withdrawal of foreign forces, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder and leader of Hezb-e-Islami-Gulbuddin (HIG), in an interview on November 1, 2011, declared, “If the U.S. is willing, we can offer them an honorable exit from Afghanistan. Lasting peace is possible only if foreign forces end the occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw their troops.” He further condemned Pakistan for its role in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
On September 24, 2011, HIG had stated that they had no interest in attending the Bonn Conference scheduled to be held in December 2011, and saw the solution to the Afghan issue only in the withdrawal of foreign forces. At that stage, Hekmatyar queried, “How can Mujahideen be interested in attending a conference which has neither a clear agenda nor its participants are clear and being organized on the proposal of the occupying forces.” He had also expressed his dissatisfaction over the fallout of the Bonn Conference and the Bonn Agreement of December 5, 2001, noting,
[a] similar conference organized with the name of 1st Bonn Conference [had] a bitter experience and [is a] historical tragedy. In the Conference, an attempt was made to condition the occupation of Afghanistan and a Government was installed, whose ministries were distributed among the pro-occupational forces parties, while a major part of the Government was given to Moscow and Tehran-linked groups. The rest was allocated to United States, India, Germany and France backed people, resulting in the 10-year long bloody fighting. Is this bloody experience not enough for avoiding participation in such conferences?
The U.S., however, appears determined to realize the pre-mature withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops by 2014, and is desperately seeking any kind of arrangement that would enable the extraction of its Forces without a complete collapse of order in Afghanistan.
In an effort to create the necessary conditions for an ordered extraction, the U.S. has sought to shift the focus of the war from Taliban strongholds in South Afghanistan, to the porous eastern border with Pakistan, where al Qaeda and Taliban factions hold sway. General David Petraeus, former Commander of the U.S. and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, observed, on July 4, 2011, “It’s a shift of intelligence assets. It’s a shift of armed and lift helicopters and perhaps the shift of some relatively small coalition forces on the ground and substantial Afghan forces on the ground. The intent has always been that, as the southwest and south are solidified, that these assets would focus on the east”.
Insurgency in the eastern Provinces of Kunar, Parwan, Kapisa, Laghman, Khost and Jalalabad, is heavily influenced by HIG. The outfit also has strong presence in Kabul, Paktika, Nangarhar and Logar Provinces. HIG has historically been active in these areas, as it operates from Pakistan’s tribal areas – the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber-Paktunkhwa (KP) Province. HIG has a strong presence in the Peshawar District of KP, particularly at the Shamshatoo Refugee Camp, from where it publishes two newspapers, Shahaadat (Martyrdom) and Tanweer (The Light). HIG members recruited youth from the Shamshatoo Refugee camp to receive advanced training, including the use of remote controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and electronics. On October 1, 2007, Qazi Amin Waqad, a close associate of Hekmatyar, stated that the Shamshatoo Council [a governing body of the HIG in the Shamshatoo Refugee Camp] is directly controlled and led by Hekmatyar. HIG also has a base in Spina Shaga in the Kurram Agency in FATA.
The most significant incidents of violence associated with HIG include:
January 28, 2011: A suicide attack killed nine people and wounded several Afghans and foreigners at the Finest Supermarket in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
November 12, 2010: A suicide car bomber blew himself up as a NATO convoy passed by his vehicle on the outskirts of Kabul, wounding two soldiers.
November 21, 2009: A rocket attack near the luxury Serena Hotel in Kabul injured four people, including two members of the Afghan Security Forces.
August 19, 2008: 10 French soldiers were killed in Sarobi District of Kabul Province in a Taliban ambush on an ISAF patrol. The clashes began late August 18 afternoon and continued into the next day, when the casualties occurred.
April 28, 2008: An attack targeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai was carried out during a military parade in Kabul. A Member of Parliament and two others were killed.
November 27, 2007: A suicide bomb attack on a convoy of U.S. contractor SUVs near the US Embassy in Kabul killed two people, including the bomber, and injured another four.
January 31, 2003: An explosion on the Rambasi Bridge six miles south of Kandahar killed eight civilians traveling on a bus.
September 5, 2002: A car bomb exploded in a central market in Kabul. Authorities indicated that at least 25 persons were killed and dozens injured.
September 5, 2002: An assassination attempt was made on Karzai outside the Governor’s Palace in Kandahar. However, no casualty was reported.
Apart from these incidents for which the HIG has either claimed responsibility or has been directly implicated, there has been a large number of other attacks in Kabul in which the group’s involvement cannot be ruled out, since it is part of the Kabul Attack Network (KAN), an umbrella organization that carries out operations in and around Kabul, led by the Haqqani Network. There have also been several attacks for which both the Quetta Shura Taliban and HIG claim responsibility, as they have a checkered history of relations.
The HIG is an Afghan Islamist political party, founded in 1977 by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Kharotai Pashtun. During the anti-Soviet Jihad, Hekmatyar was heavily backed and funded by the CIA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While he was an engineering student at Kabul University, Hekmatyar, was heavily influenced by the Ikhwan-al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood). Initially, he was also part of the Pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, but his linkage with HIG was established through covert Pakistani support of the Islamist formations in the country, with the objective of toppling the Daoud Khan Government. However, Hekmatyar’s failure to lead a successful anti-Government rebellion caused split in the party. Hezb-e-Islami-Khalis was founded in the 1979 by Mawlawi Mohammad Younus Khalis, after the latter broke with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar over political differences. Before splitting with the Khalis’ faction and forming his own cadre of fighters, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who now heads the Haqqani Network, was among the most famous of Hezb-e-Islami-Khalis commanders.
In the early 1990s, Hekmatyar ran several terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and was a pioneer in sending mercenary fighters to other Islamic conflicts across the world. He offered to shelter slain al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden after the latter fled Sudan in 1996. However, when HIG failed to capture Kabul during the early 1990s, and consequently failed to secure Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan, Islamabad shifted its support to the Taliban, a new movement of religious students (talibs) who were gaining strength in the south of the country at that time. The Taliban went on to take over most of Afghanistan by the late 1990s.
Hekmatyar was forced into exile when the Taliban finally conquered Kabul in 1996. Unsurprisingly, as late as November 2002, Hekmatyar publicly denied cooperating with the Taliban. However, on December 25, 2002, Hekmatyar and the Taliban publicly announced that they were coordinating their activity against the Afghan Government and its international supporters. According to Abdul Razak, former Minister of Commerce in the Taliban Regime and Guantanamo Detainee 1043, “In the spring of 2003, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, HIG leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Usama bin Laden agreed to unite their forces”. This alignment formed the Anti-Government Elements (AGE) organizing the insurgency against the current Afghan Government.
Radio Free Europe reported that, in May 2006, Hekmatyar appeared in a video aired on the Arabic language Al-Jazeera television station, and declared that he wanted his forces to fight alongside al Qaeda. He stated, “We thank all Arab mujahideen, particularly Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, and other leaders who helped us in our jihad against the Russians”.
According to an October 2008 document of the District Court for the Central District of California, Southern Division, in the U.S.,
On or about February 18, 2003, the State Department and the United States Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control designated Gulbuddin Hekmatyar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, pursuant to Executive Order 13224, for his participation in and support of terrorist acts carried out by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. On or about February 20, 2003, the United Nations Security Council designated Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as an individual associated with al-Qaeda.
These designations continue in effect.
Meanwhile, the insurgency’s penetration of the greater Kabul area has intensified competition between Taliban fighters associated with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura (leadership council), the North Waziristan-based Haqqani Network and HIG. Violent rivalries between commanders of these insurgent groups in places such as Kapisa, Logar and Wardak have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives.
Thus, in spite of trying to work at an extremist AGE front, HIG and Taliban have failed to hammer out a shared operational framework. Ideologically, HIG is in favour of establishing a democracy based on elections, which is totally opposed by the Taliban. Further, HIG supports education and jobs for women, whereas Taliban are known for their anti-women policies. HIG has also articulated its willingness to pursue a political settlement with the Karzai Government, and this has reportedly irritated the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, there have been confrontations between members of the HIG and Taliban. In March 2010, HIG and the Taliban clashed in Baghlan Province, which resulted in hundreds of casualties, according to the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). Both insurgent groups also clashed in the Wardak Province in July 2010. The CTC notes that the Taliban’s growth in northern Afghanistan and subsequent competition for terrain between insurgent groups had generated a “significant fissure in the country’s militant movement”.
Though HIG has engaged in several attacks on civilian targets, it has also issued an edict condemning civilian killing. For instance, HIG took ‘credit’ for the massacre of civilians in the Finest Supermarket on January 28, 2011. However, Hekmatyar’s deputy, Qutbuddin Helal, on February 5, 2011, stated, “Killing civilians is prohibited. We cannot call it an Islamic act. Suicide attacks and firefights in public and civilian locations are not acceptable in Islam at all”.
It may have been forced to adopt this dichotomous approach as a result of the fact that almost 40 members in the newly inaugurated Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the National Assembly) have or had political affiliations to the HIG. The Jirga was formed in October 2010 and has 249 members.
HIG representatives have also been engaged in direct talks with Government officials in Kabul. Significantly, on March 22, 2010, HIG published a 15-Point Peace Plan. While it is very detailed about an interim period during and after a quick withdrawal of foreign troops, the plan is vague about what a future Afghanistan would look like. It stipulates only that the first new elected Parliament would revise the Constitution. Apart from the establishment of Islamic courts to try war criminals and corrupt officials, there is not even the standard reference to an Islamic system of Government – apparently, that goes without saying.
A decade into the war, the West is seeking to weaken a host of insurgents, including the HIG, and push them towards embryonic peace talks with the Afghan Government, rather than to achieving a decisive battlefield victory in this decade-long guerrilla war. At the same time, political disagreement has become a perennial problem in insurgency-ravaged Afghanistan. HIG remains a critical, unpredictable and dangerous player in Afghanistan’s present and volatile scenario, marked by a visible incoherence of strategy and political objectives. Given the group’s history, there is little reason to believe that it offers an alternative that could end present and potential political instability within the context of the U.S. efforts to hasten a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management