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A New Bad Turn in Afghanistan


This past May, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sometimes known as the Butcher of Kabul, Afghanistan’s most famous and probably most hated warlord, returned to Kabul through a negotiated deal with the government. He arrived in a convoy of trucks, with armed followers brandishing their military hardware. The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said that Hekmatyar’s return would “pave the way for peace” with the Taliban. A holy warrior who once refused to shake hands with then-President Ronald Reagan, Hekmatyar reached a hand out to the Taliban: “Come forward, let’s talk about peace and prosperity.”

Peace processes are painful. For the sake of the country, victims are asked to forgive what was done to them. If the prospects for peace are real, some are willing to do it so that the war does not go on. So it is worth looking at what Afghans are being asked to forgive, and what relationship Hekmatyar’s return has to peace.

The war in Afghanistan today is not a war about ideology, progress, or what kind of society Afghanistan will be. The belligerents are the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the one side and the Taliban on the other. Both sides are coalitions that spend resources and lives on infighting. There are defections and local understandings, alliances made and broken. Local life is determined by warlords. This is how the Afghan war has been fought for more than 25 years.

Hekmatyar has been active for much longer than that. When Hekmatyar’s career started in the 1970s, Afghanistan’s war had a very different character. Afghanistan wasn’t always an eternally conservative place: people like Hekmatyar had to kill a lot of Afghans to make it seem so.

The debate about reform in Afghanistan is an old one. One reform-minded monarch, Amanullah Khan, defeated the British imperial armies in 1919 and spent the next 10 years building girls’ schools, overturning dress codes for women, putting forward a constitution, and trying to weaken tribal ties. There were revolutions and changes happening all over that part of the world, from East Asia to the newly created Soviet Union. Such reforms, 100 years ago, did not seem so unusual for a progressive government in Asia to attempt.

Amanullah was overthrown though, by rivals operating with support from the vengeful British. He had a series of short-lived successors who sacked Kabul, rolled back the reforms, and repaired the relationship with the British Empire. After four years of this chaos, King Zahir Shah (who would rule for 40 years) arrived on the throne, and reform was back on the agenda.

In a chapter of a new book on Afghanistan’s Islam from Conversion to the Taliban, Afghan-Australian scholar Faridullah Bezhan writes about the first political party to work openly in Afghanistan: the Awaken Youth Party, which emerged in the 1940s. The AYP espoused nationalism and constitutionalism against the religious establishment. According to Bezhan, the AYP’s nationalist ideas were popular with a large portion of the country’s educated class. Nationalists sought to counter the influence of the religious establishment, whose members had often been sponsored by the British and who were happy to undermine national agendas in exchange for imperial support for their social conservatism. The AYP sought to reform Afghan society into a constitutional monarchy through modern education. They believed in the “fight against superstition and bad social customs,” and even in “consuming local products as much as possible.” By the 1950s, religious figures were leading demonstrations against modern education and nationalists were leading demonstrations in support. At this point, the Islamists started to try to organize political parties to imitate the effectiveness of the nationalists. The government cracked down on all parties in 1952.

But a decade later, reform was back again. Zahir Shah introduced a new constitution in 1964, beginning the constitutional decade. The constitution guaranteed the vote, women’s rights, and parliamentary elections, but the king stopped short of legalizing political parties. Parties worked unofficially at the new educational institutions, which each had foreign sponsors: Kabul University, which attracted foreign aid from the US, and the Polytechnic, which attracted Russian aid. The strongest political parties were communists (Parcham and Khalq factions), Maoists (Shola-e-Jawedan), and Islamists (Hekmatyar was in the Jawanan-e-Musalman, but the Islamists split into a number of groups). The debates in the constitutional decade are as unrecognizable compared to today’s Afghanistan as the now-famous photos of female students from the period are. A major dispute with the Shah’s Iran over water rights and a hydroelectric dam brought thousands into the streets. A dispute with Pakistan over the status of Pakistan’s Pashtun areas and populations (the so-called “Pashtunistan” issue) preoccupied successive elected governments.

But Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—who flunked out of engineering school at Kabul University at this time—had other concerns.

These were conducting acid- and rock-throwing attacks against female students, and murdering leftists, whether they were Parcham, Khalq, or Shola-e. Hekmatyar was jailed in 1972 for the murder of Maoist student and poet Saydal Sukhandan, but escaped a year and a half later—though not before he was given a leadership role in the Islamist movement, directing their political activities in jail. Shortly after he got out of jail, Hekmatyar fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, along with other famous Islamist leaders, Burnuhuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud. These Islamists, led by Massoud, launched a failed uprising against the government in 1975. Massoud, who was later known as the Lion of the Panjshir Valley, was routed quickly by the Afghan army and by people of that valley, who, at the time, supported the government and had no interest in an Islamist uprising. This was years before the Soviet invasion: the Islamists, who became the mujahideen, were fighting against Afghan nationalism and progressive reform. And the US supported them the whole time.

This history matters because it dispels some very pernicious myths about Afghanistan. Eternally conservative countries don’t need men like Hekmatyar to murder leftists and assault female students. And the mujahideen, supported by the empire of the day (the US), were trying (and failing) to overthrow reform long before the communist coups of 1978 and the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Based on his experiences there in the early 1980s, Guardian correspondent Jonathan Steele’s book Ghosts of Afghanistan dispels some persistent myths about the country. He notes that:

  • The civil war (and Western support for the mujahideen) preceded the Soviet invasion by several years.
  • The USSR was not really defeated by the Islamists in battle: indeed the vaunted Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, made a non-aggression pact with the Soviets from 1983, allowing Soviets to set up a base in his valley (partly because Massoud felt he needed to conserve his forces to defend his valley against – Hekmatyar).
  • The vaunted Stinger missiles from the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson’s War didn’t affect the Soviet decision to withdraw, which was made in 1985, a year before the missiles arrived (in 1986). The main effect of the missiles was to force Soviet and Afghan government forces to bomb from higher altitudes.

The USSR left Afghanistan because it was collapsing internally and because it wanted to repair its relationship with the West. Withdrawal was one of Gorbachev’s first decisions when he came to power in 1985, and it was completed by 1989. But the Afghan government, then under President Mohammad Najibullah, held on until 1992, with a bit of Soviet aid and the support of a population that greatly (and correctly) feared what would happen if the Islamists like Hekmatyar came to power.

The United States didn’t just “walk away” in this period, either: that, too, is a myth. The U.S. kept on supporting the mujahideen after the Soviets left in 1989, making it clear that they would not allow any reconciliation effort or national unity government that included any progressive, liberal, or communist.

Throughout the war, Hekmatyar became famous for his own brand of warfare: torturing and killing people because they were from Tajik, Hazara, or Uzbek minority groups, assassinating rival Islamist commanders and their troops, skinning Soviet soldiers alive, hijacking aid caravans carrying medicine and food, killing foreign journalists. Hekmatyar took over the heroin trade after assassinating smuggler Mullah Nasim in 1990 in Peshawar. But a higher priority was the murder of leftists and liberals: Dr. Faiz Ahmad of the Maoists; Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); philosophy professor Sayyid Bahauddin Majrooh.

The Afghan government was not easy to defeat. President Najibullah coordinated the battle of Jalalabad when Hekmatyar tried to take the important city in 1989, a decisive moment that showed that the government could hold on indefinitely. Najibullah also foiled a coup by his own defense minister, Shahnawaz Tanai, who quickly fled in 1990 to join Hekmatyar in Pakistan.

The Afghan communists lost not on the battlefield, nor in Afghan public support, but when the collapsed Soviet Union under its drunken president Boris Yeltsin (who also oversaw the greatest economic collapse perhaps in human history in his own country) handed Afghanistan to the mujahideen in August 1991. Yeltsin did so in a way that would be maximally damaging to the Afghan government’s morale and will, meeting Islamist leaders in Moscow in November 1991, announcing the “complete transfer of state power to an interim Islamic government,” and that there would be no more aid beginning in 1992. Steele compared this to Obama announcing in 2008 that Afghanistan would be handed over from Karzai to the Taliban.

The defections began immediately, with Afghan army commanders like Rashid Dostum carving out their own fiefdoms and taking their men and equipment with them. When Najibullah tried to flee in 1992, Dostum didn’t let him go. Najibullah hid in the UN compound in Kabul until 1996, when he was hanged from a lamppost by the Taliban.

Once Yeltsin handed them the country and the government began to collapse, the mujahideen finally had their chance to show how they would govern in power. Hekmatyar took his forces and raced to Kabul, but Massoud got there first. Hekmatyar besieged the city and spent the next three years launching indiscriminate rocket attacks that destroyed the capital and killed at least 25,000 people.

Along with another leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani (of the Haqqani group famous for kidnapping the main character in “Serial” season 2, Bowe Bergdahl, and more recently the Canadian Boyle family), Hekmatyar had been the recipient of the greatest US and Pakistani largesse to fight the Soviets: the estimates cited by Ishtiaq Ahmad, who wrote a biography of Hekmatyar, are that the US sent $3 billion to the mujahideen throughout the 1980s, and $600 million of it went to Hekmatyar.

After a couple of years of watching Hekmatyar lay waste to Kabul, Pakistan’s intelligence agency despaired of their proxies ever setting up a stable government. They switched horses and chose a new armed group that had grown up in Pakistan’s refugee camps for Afghans on the border: students (“Taliban”) of the teachings of one of the old Islamist leaders, Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi. As the Taliban broke the impasse and routed mujahideen forces, heading for the capital, Massoud and Rabbani became desperate and brokered a deal with Hekmatyar, the very commander who had been shelling their capital city to rubble for years. Hekmatyar entered that capital as prime minister, further insulting and demoralizing Kabul’s people who had suffered from his siege. He lasted about two months (during which he imposed various new restrictions on women’s rights) before the Taliban took Kabul and Hekmatyar fled again, this time to Iran, where he lived from 1996-2002 in a palace outside of Tehran.

The war didn’t end when the Taliban took the Kabul in 1996 and it didn’t end when they fled US bombing and went to Pakistan in 2001. Their mujahideen rivals fought on, and in 2001 the US ousted one group of mujahideen and installed another. President Bush clarified that the US interest wasn’t nation-building—a consistent position, given all the US had done to kill the nation-builders.

The Afghan people, it is still said, had rejected the nation-builders. The communists, who tortured and killed their political enemies, lost the support of the people. They engaged in purges and infighting. Their reform programs of women’s rights and land reform alienated the conservative population. That, not billions of dollars in Western aid and weapons, not the Soviet Union’s collapse, was why the mujahideen were able to win. Even mythbusters like Jonathan Steele engage in this sort of myth-making, arguing that the Afghan communist governments tried to change too much too fast when they canceled peasant debts, redistributed land, forbade child marriages, reduced dowry payments, and launched literacy programs. He quotes a former member of the government, Sultan Ali Keshtmand, saying that the Afghan communist government of Hafizullah Amin and Noor Muhammad Taraki in 1978 “wanted to eradicate literacy within five years. It was ridiculous. The land reforms were unpopular… Society wasn’t ready.”

There is plenty to criticize about Afghan communists Taraki (killed by Amin), Amin (killed by the Soviets), Karmal, and Najibullah (killed by the Taliban). The reports of tortures and murders under their governments are well documented and are to be believed. And no doubt their reforms were unpopular with at least a significant segment of the population.

But was Afghanistan really “not ready?”

Because the (real) tortures and murders by Amin and Taraki are dwarfed by the now heroically returned Hekmatyar and the numerous other warlords running parts of Afghanistan today. And if Afghans weren’t ready for a redistributive land reform, were they ready for the Khalid-bin-Walid land project in Mazar e-Sharif under the US-backed government of Karzai? The governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, gave land out to his friends, former mujahideen commanders, who bought it at a subsidized rate and rented or sold it at a vastly higher market price, becoming a land mafia in Mazar (the story is told in a recent book on warlord governance by Dipali Mukhopadhyay). The governor of Nangarhar from 2005-2009, Gul Agha Sherzai, ran an electricity mafia and collected taxes on trucks, perhaps pocketing half of the funds designated for reconstruction. The people of Afghanistan can’t stomach land reform, but they are happy to tolerate land mafias? They couldn’t tolerate women’s rights, but were fine with warlords pillaging reconstruction funds?

Maybe there is another explanation.

History is written by the victors, after all, and if myths about the Afghan civil war don’t hold up, if the mujahideen are revealed to be a collection of imperial-backed mass murderers, thieves, and nation-destroyers, of which Hekmatyar is the quintessential example, then new myths have to be created to justify their continuance in power and Western indulgence toward them. Of the few myths left, the communists would have been worse and the country wasn’t ready still offer some comfort.

With politics based on these myths, how could they not welcome Hekmatyar back? He is just an extreme version of the kind of man the US looks for, the most uncompromising opponent of the same forces the US opposes everywhere in the world—independent nationalism and leftism. With US help, men like Hekmatyar excluded and destroyed the left and killed a generation of nationalists. For that service, they are allowed to destroy the country and to continue to loot the ruins.

Hekmatyar’s return will not bring peace or reconciliation. It has nothing to do with these things. It is the latest and most powerful symbol (so far) of the destruction of Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

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