x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Afghan warlord holds key to peace

As Afghanistan's insurgency grows ever fiercer, the role of a key player in the bloodshed is often ignored by the outside world.

Khalid Farooqi has no hope for stability in Afghanistan.
Khalid Farooqi has no hope for stability in Afghanistan.

KABUL // As Afghanistan's insurgency grows ever fiercer, a key player in the bloodshed is often ignored by the outside world. But any mention of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or Hizb-e-Islami, the militia he heads, always provokes a strong reaction among Afghans. "Day by day things are getting worse and there is no sign of hope that stability will come," said Khalid Farooqi, an old friend of the warlord.

"Hizb-e-Islami is very popular all over Afghanistan and well known by everyone. Not inviting its representatives to the Bonn conference [a meeting held in Dec 2001 to decide Afghanistan's future] was one of the biggest mistakes of the international community." Hekmatyar is among the most notorious figures in this country's recent history. He first rose to prominence as a political activist at Kabul University, where he and his followers allegedly threw acid in the faces of unveiled female students. By 1975 he was leading Hizb-e-Islami, a party modelled along similar lines to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, in a rebellion against the communist government. The party eventually split in two and during the Soviet occupation his faction got more support from Pakistan's intelligence services and the CIA than any of the other resistance groups.

However, the violence that tore Kabul apart between 1992 and 1996 is what Hekmatyar is usually remembered for. In a civil war with rival mujahideen commanders, he sent rockets raining down on the capital. Tens of thousands of people were killed. Hizb-e-Islami is divided along slightly different lines now. On one side are insurgents from the two factions who carry out ambushes and roadside bombings. On the other is a fundamentalist political party with huge influence in the government and parliament.

Mr Farooqi belongs to the latter. Having previously fought his opponents on the battlefield, he decided it was time to try a different approach. While his mentor took to the mountains and chose to unleash a new wave of violence, he ended up running for office. "If I had not put down my gun and pursued peace, who would have?" the member of parliament for Paktika said. "But whether I put down my gun or not, the war was still going to go on because that is the decision of the foreigners."

Although Mr Farooqi insists he does not regret moving into politics, it is clear that he and his colleagues feel betrayed. "If the foreigners want to bring peace, they could do it in a short time," he said "Look, they got rid of the Taliban in three to four days when the Taliban even had their own airports and planes." For Mr Farooqi, the problems facing his country are the result of a secret agenda orchestrated by outside powers. It is an agenda that first became apparent at the Bonn conference, convened after the 2001 invasion to discuss Afghanistan's future, he claimed.

The UN-brokered talks were denounced by Hekmatyar, and Hizb-e-Islami was subsequently sidelined, paving the way for longtime rivals to seize control. "Very important decisions were made about Afghanistan, but no one came to ask the main people who live here, no one came to talk to the tribal elders," Mr Farooqi said. "The important decisions were made by people outside Afghanistan." Hekmatyar - who was twice named as prime minister during the mujahideen regime - is believed to be somewhere near the Pakistan border. This year, a US-led air strike in the north-eastern province of Nuristan was reported to have targeted him. Several civilians were killed instead.

The warlord again made headlines when his militia claimed it was behind an assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai, the president, on April 27. The Taliban also claimed responsibility for the attack. Despite the growing bloodshed, rumours persist that Hekmatyar may still join the political process. The recent release of his son-in-law from US custody has only added to the speculation. But other men who once fought for Hizb-e-Islami have slipped by the wayside, forgotten by their party and their government.

Gul Hassan comes from Tagab, a district in the Kapisa province north of Kabul. He joined the jihad when he was 13, killing communist soldiers using just axes and swords. "The Tagab people were very brave at that time, even before they got weapons from Pakistan," he said. "That's why they are fighting the Americans now." Mr Hassan, who later joined the Taliban, claimed Hekmatyar visited his village on more than 100 occasions during the country's long battle against the Soviets and their Afghan allies.

"He is a good mujahid and a good leader. He used to come and stay with us for months and months," he said. Like Mr Farooqi, Mr Hassan has chosen a different life now and it is making him unhappy. With a young family to feed, he spends the days struggling to find work and the nights sleeping in the derelict building that is his home. If their old friend does join the political process, the news will doubtless please them. But while some will see it as a sign of hope and a step towards reconciliation, many others will be convinced the country is destined to repeat the tragedies of the past.