Is This Warlord America's New Afghan Ally?

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's 30 years of brutal war

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During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar emerged as one of the most vicious commanders in the Afghan resistance. He received near limitless American dollars and weapons for his work. But he was notorious for refusing to cooperate with other Afghan rebels, and even fought actively against them. After the Soviets withdrew, he was at the top of a bloody civil war for dominance of the country. Refusing to accept peace through a coalition government with other high-profile warlords, Hekmatyar kept fighting, killing civilians and imposing strict Islamic law, until the mid-1990s rise of the Taliban. Hekmatyar and others allied in opposition to the Taliban, but he was forced to flee to Iran. When the U.S. invaded in 2001, Hekmatyar returned to Afghanistan, this time raising an army to fight alongside the Taliban. Today he commands one of the most dangerous factions in Afghanistan and, paradoxically, leads a political party with several seats in the U.S.-supported Afghan parliament.

This probably doesn't sound like a great American ally. But the U.S. has long pursued peaceful reconciliation with Taliban commanders, seeing it as a difficult but necessary step in ending 30 years of war. Hekmatyar's army would be by far the largest to reconcile with U.S. forces. But his record doesn't lend confidence. Is the idea just crazy enough to work? Is Hekmatyar's notorious proclivity for switching sides an asset or a liability?

  • Why It Could Work  The New Republic's Michael Crowley cautiously evaluates a rumored plan to bring Hekmatyar into the fold. "While Hekmatyar shares his fellow insurgents’ rhetoric about defeating the Americans, he is not as doctrinaire. A lifelong deal-maker, he cares most about one thing: power," he writes. "Hekmatyar has flirted with peace talks for years, but it’s clear that both sides have a keener interest than before."

A deal with Hekmatyar could give Obama’s prospects in Afghanistan a huge boost. Even now, American troops are hard-pressed to pacify southern Afghanistan, and the United States can ill afford to see the north slip any further into chaos. Disarming Hekmatyar’s fighters, sometimes estimated to number in the thousands, would be a major strategic boost. And, if a hardened anti-American warlord like Hekmatyar were to renounce violence, that could set an example for his Pashtun admirers throughout the region. [...] Still, cutting a deal with Hekmatyar that grants him legitimized power could amount to a horrendous moral compromise. The Afghan people remember well the blood on Hekmatyar’s hands.

  • Is This Already Happening?  Time's Tim McGirk reports rumors that Hekmatyar was behind the recent arrests of key leaders from other Taliban factions. "Hekmatyar, whose forces probably number several thousand and are scattered in the eastern and northern provinces, may be positioning himself for a seat at the bargaining table with Karzai and the Taliban."
  • Does He Understand Peace?  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias wonders what Hekmatyar would do without war. "Some people fight because they want power and thus are willing to accept a bargain in which they get some power and agree to stop fighting. But though Hekmatyar’s engaged in a bewildering series of deals and double-crosses in his career, he’s really never stopped fighting. He’s really good at being an irregular warfare commander, is he going to be any good at sharing power in a civilian government?"
  • Good For U.S., Bad for Afghanistan  Blogger Gregg Carlstrom sighs, "well, the man is a sociopath." He explains, "You'd be hard-pressed to find many Afghans who would welcome his return to politics -- even within the Hezb-i-Islami, where Hekmatyar is rapidly losing influence." Such a decision "might be good short-term news for the policy community in Washington. But what do they mean for Afghanistan -- for the people who ultimately have to live with their long-term consequences?"
  • We've No Choice  Bernard Finel sighs, "Respectfully, if you don't want to get into bed with Hekmatyar, you shouldn't fight a war in Afghanistan."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.