The Daily Telegraph has today published a rare interview with Afghan warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. This interview potentially represents one of the most significant recent developments in Afghanistan. For several years I have argued that Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami faction represent a greater danger to peace in Afghanistan than the Taliban (see here and here). It is just that Hekmatyar has been biding his time allowing the brunt of the fighting and casualties to be borne by the Taliban and to a lesser extent the Haqqani network which originally split from his Hezb-i-Islami faction. Now that Hekmatyar sees the west heading for the exit in Afghanistan he has emerged from his shadowy elusive existence to give this interview.
Whilst Hekmatyar claims in the interview that he wants a ‘peaceful transition of the government’ one should be under no illusions as to what he actually means by this. For once I have to respectfully disagree with the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne who obtained the interview . I do not believe that this is an encouraging sign of engagement for two reasons:
First, Hekmatyar has long been known to be able to utter words as smooth as silk and as enticing as honey, yet be utterly, brutally untrustworthy as he harbours a ruthless ambition. Remember, this is the man who when the other mujahaddin leaders agreed on a coalition government following the Soviet withdrawal, bombed and shelled large parts of Kabul to dust, causing thousands of deaths and immense suffering, because he wanted to be President rather than just Prime Minister. As someone who as an aid worker has had to negotiate with senior leaders of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami in the past, I know that their leaders can appear charming, educated and well mannered. However, all who worked in the areas of Afghanistan controlled by Hezb-i-Isami also knew them to be by far the most brutal and murderous of all the mujahaddin groups, even more so than the Taliban who came later. In 1995 I was invited to dinner with Hekmatyar by some senior Hezb-i-Islami figures in Laghman province which they then controlled. I politely declined, not merely because I saw little positive that could come out of it, but because there was a real risk that as others before had done I would simply 'disappear' afterwards. Hekmatyar may sound engaging now, however, this is the same man who in March 2002 claimed to be offering full support to President Karzai, shortly before around 160 of his followers were arrested in a plot to bomb Kabul. He will do whatever he feels is necessary to gain power for himself.
Secondly, Hekmatyar is doing what Islamists have become increasingly expert at over the last 10-15 years – presenting themselves as moderate, reasonable and democratic to the western press as a way of seeking to further their own ends.
What the reappearance of Hekmatyar probably does tell us is that he sees the end game of western intervention in Afghanistan as being in sight and now wishes to emerge from his hiding to play a major role. The major role he envisages will almost certainly involve himself becoming President of Afghanistan – and whilst he may stand for election in 2014 when President Karzai’s maximum two terms comes to an end, he will also be prepared to use the most brutal violence to gain power if necessary. Any area of the country that he controls is likely to be subject to both sharia enforcement that is at least as harsh and brutal as that of the Taliban, coupled with a murderous administration of justice in which anyone who crosses either him or members of his Hezb-i-Islami faction are simply exterminated.
What I would suggest Hekmatyar’s ‘appearance’ makes clear is that the west must be prepared to provide ongoing security support to the Afghan government, particularly in terms of special forces and air support for a significant period of time after the withdrawal of the main western combat forces in 2014, if we are to stop Afghanistan sliding back to becoming an al Qaeda haven that threatens the west.