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The Australian, February 27, 2010

Afghanistan worlords’ unwelcome return

Peter Bergen calculates that by the most conservative estimate Hekmatyar party received USD600 million in CIA funds channelled through ISI

By Sally Neighbour

Peace in Afghanistan is unlikely to be brought by the thugs and murderers being wooed by the Karzai government

THE rogues' gallery of warlords and war criminals being courted by the Karzai government and its Western backers betrays just how desperate the dilemma of Afghanistan has become, and how treacherous the road to peace and stability that lies ahead.

President Hamid Karzai's much vaunted new strategy of reconciliation with the militants has found his government doing deals with the same cast of villains who helped tear Afghanistan to shreds during the past 30 years of war.

Most notorious of all is the veteran jihad commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an accused terrorist, war criminal and protector of Osama bin Laden who last month held out an olive branch to Karzai and the West, claiming he is not in league with the Taliban and wants only the departure of foreign forces.

Hekmatyar is being feted with offers that reportedly include ministries and governorships for his party, Hezb-e-Islami, in a future Afghan regime.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Hekmatyar's overture "could be the most promising avenue to peace". If so, it will be a rocky road indeed. During the past three decades Hekmatyar has earned a reputation as the most ruthless, bloodthirsty, corrupt and self-serving of all the Afghan commanders. He is more hated even than the Taliban and the thought of Hekmatyar being accommodated is anathema to many Afghans. Yet the harsh reality is, as Afghan parliamentarian Abdul Jabar told The Washington Post, "If we exclude Hekmatyar from peace negotiations, there won't be any peace in Afghanistan."

The devils with whom Kabul and Washington must now deal are largely of America's own making, assisted by its long-time ally, Pakistan. During the US-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar led one of seven mujaheddin parties that were lavishly bankrolled by the CIA.

American journalist and author Peter Bergen, an authority on the jihadist movement, calculates that by the most conservative estimate Hekmatyar's party received $US600 million in CIA funds channelled through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Richard J. Kerr, the  Deputy Director of CIA with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Richard J. Kerr, the Deputy Director of CIA at that time, meeting with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Islamabad in 1988.

His patrons disregarded Hekmatyar's virulent anti-American views, which were eclipsed at the time by his even greater hatred for the Russians. An extreme Islamist, Hekmatyar was the favourite of the pro-Islamist ISI and was described as a Pakistani agent by the CIA, according to Bergen.

Hekmatyar had already made a name for himself as a murderous thug after killing a rival student leader at Kabul University in the 1970s. In the 80s he was cited by Asia Watch and the US State Department for human rights abuses for massacring enemy soldiers and killing civilians, aid workers and journalists. Afghan human rights activists want him tried in the International Court of Justice for war crimes.

After the Soviets were defeated in the early 90s, Hekmatyar did more than any other player to plunge Afghanistan into a savage civil conflict, sabotaging efforts to form a power-sharing mujaheddin government and instead declaring war on his rivals in Kabul.

Even after being named prime minister, Hekmatyar and his forces subjected the capital to relentless artillery and rocket bombardment for months, destroying half the city and 50,000 of its citizens, deliberately targeting civilians.

Hekmatyar was installed as prime minister again briefly in 1996, in a last-ditch bid to forge a united mujaheddin front. But by this time his Pakistani patrons had switched their support to the more disciplined Taliban, which swiftly took power. It was thanks to the mayhem and carnage created by Hekmatyar and his cronies that many Afghans welcomed the arrival of the Taliban, which vowed to restore law and order and curb the warlords.

Hekmatyar is equally famous for his habit of switching sides, having fought with and against almost every faction in Afghanistan at various times. After 9/11 he sided with bin Laden, providing sanctuary for al-Qa'ida fugitives at his new base in Iran until he was expelled from there in 2002. He also boasted of having helped bin Laden and his entourage escape Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains into Pakistan.

Hekmatyar returned to Afghanistan in 2002 to fight the Americans and the Karzai government. The CIA tried to kill him with a missile fired from a Predator drone but missed. Since then Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami has been closely aligned with the other two leading anti-government groups, his one-time enemy Mullah Mohammed Omar's Taliban, and the Haqqani network in southeast Afghanistan.

In 2003 the US government declared Hekmatyar a specially designated global terrorist. He has claimed responsibility for a series of lethal attacks including an assassination attempt against Karzai in 2008, when Hekmatyar's troops fired rockets on a military parade, killing three people including a member of parliament and a 10-year-old boy.

Hekmatyar's forces dominate the insurgency in several eastern and central provinces. A legal wing of Hizb-e-Islami has 19 seats in parliament and one of its leaders is Minister of the Economy in Karzai's new cabinet.

His parliamentary supporters are lobbying to have Hekmatyar brought into the government.

Hekmatyar is not the only warlord manoeuvring himself back into a position of power. Another notorious warmonger, Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, returned to Afghanistan from exile in Turkey last year to help Karzai secure the ethnic Uzbek vote, in return for which he was appointed as Karzai's military chief of staff.

Dostum's CV reads much like Hekmatyar's. Renowned for his brutality, he was a partner in Hekmatyar's siege of Kabul in 1994 that laid waste to the city and its populace. In 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, his troops massacred about 2000 Taliban fighters by locking them in shipping containers and leaving them to suffocate. It was "the most outrageous and brutal human rights violation of the entire war", according to Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid.

Dostum was a key beneficiary of the "warlord strategy" adopted by the US in the wake of 9/11, and described in Rashid's book, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (2008).

The CIA put commanders such as Dostum on its payroll to buy their co-operation against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. An initial $US10m was handed out to the likes of Dostum and Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, another veteran jihadist, bin Laden ally and leading terrorist trainer.

Sayyaf used his share of the CIA's money to buy up most of the district of Paghman, west of Kabul, where he has his base, according to Rashid. Today Sayyaf holds a seat in the Afghan parliament, where he has lobbied for legislation to prevent mujaheddin leaders such as himself being charged with war crimes.

The "warlord strategy" was profoundly destabilising, further entrenching Afghanistan's deep ethnic and tribal divisions and rendering the Karzai government in Kabul "weak and irrelevant", in the words of Rashid.

Ordinary Afghans were dismayed: "Although the Americans had liberated them from the evil of the Taliban, they had brought back another evil: the warlords."

In 2002 a plan to expand the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force beyond Kabul and into the provinces to curb the warlords was blocked by the US. Washington preferred to rely on America's paid-up proxies.

Rashid writes: "The unstated US strategy was to leave Karzai ineffectual in the capital, protected by foreign forces, while relying on the warlords to keep Pax Americana in the countryside." Rashid says that legalising warlord authority was the US's most fatal mistake and "gave the Taliban just the propaganda excuse they needed to reorganise".

The question that's now being grappled with is whether a warlord can change his spots. The mercurial Hekmatyar would have Afghans believe he can.

"[Hekmatyar's] stance is to bring peace in Afghanistan," a representative of the infamous commander told The Asia Times after meeting a deputy of Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The talks reportedly included discussion of governorships and deputy ministries in return for Hekmatyar and his fighters laying down their arms.

Two weeks ago Hekmatyar appeared in a new video in civilian garb and minus his usual Kalashnikov talking softly of the need for peace. The US-led international forces' intelligence chief Michael Flynn welcomed his "reported willingness to reconcile with the Afghan government".

One commentator has hailed Hekmatyar as "the great hope of all parties", as the only Pashtun strongman untainted by al-Qa'ida and possibly capable of taking on the Taliban.

God help Afghanistan if Hekmatyar is its best hope for peace.

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