In Afghanistan: Embracing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Is No Method at All

Reportedly now aligned with the Taliban, Hekmatayar appears and reappears like Mephistopheles in the Afghan narrative -- only to vanish in a puff of smoke.
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Colonel Kurtz: Did they say why [Captain] Willard, why they want to terminate my command?

Captain Willard: They told me, that you had gone totally insane and uh, that your methods were unsound.

Colonel Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

Captain Willard: I don't see any method at all, Sir.

-Apocalypse Now

One thing that remains consistent over the last 30 years in observing America's participation in Afghanistan is that mistakes and errors of judgment, no matter how egregious or self-defeating, never seem to get corrected. In fact, in its effort to rationalize a growing culture of war-making from Vietnam to Afghanistan, America has come around to embracing the insanity of the fictional Colonel Kurtz.

Without a care for the consequences, the U.S. first fostered Islamic extremists in the 1980s (repackaging them for public consumption as "fiercely religious freedom fighters"), then endorsed the rise of the Taliban by claiming they were a "cleansing" force (apparently for these same fiercely religious freedom fighters). According to former CIA operative Milt Bearden, the U.S. also helped facilitate the Arab infiltration of Central Asia by assisting Al Qaeda and ultimately redirecting Osama bin Laden out of the Sudan and into Afghanistan. The Washington beltway and a large segment of the media reveled in the genius of their new "method," for undoing communist influence and securing Central Asia.

Once a person with a cause has been linked to a policy and established in Washington, that person remains forever as the go-to person regardless of their subsequent history. One such example is the Afghan terrorist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who like Mephistopheles appears and reappears in the Afghan narrative at various points in time only to vanish in a puff of smoke.

Hekmatyar's reputation was established back in the late 1960s as a high school student when he joined the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and then attended the Mahtab Qala military school in Kabul. By the early 1970s Hekmatyar had become radicalized by extremist Islam and joined the Nahzat-e-Jawanane Musalman (Muslim Youth Movement). As an engineering student at Kabul University he became known for throwing acid at women dressed in Western clothes and for murdering a fellow student from a Maoist faction of the PDPA. Imprisoned by King Zahir Shah's police for the murder, Hekmatyar was freed following a 1973 coup by the King's cousin Mohammed Daoud and communist PDPA leader Babrak Karmal and fled to Pakistan.

Hekmatyar joined with Ahmad Shah Massoud's Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party) in a Pakistani plan designed by their Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to destabilize Afghanistan with cross border raids. Dissatisfied with the radical Jamaat's political approach after failing to stir an uprising in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar formed his own more radical party, the Hesb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) and came to the attention of the CIA. In 1979, Hekmatyar helped to precipitate the Soviet invasion by engaging Afghanistan's desperate Marxist President Hafizullah Amin in a power sharing arrangement. According to the April 1981, (No. 282) edition of British publication The Round Table the Soviets panicked when they realized Amin had set December 29th as the date for dissidents of the regime and their tribal supporters to march on Kabul.

Hekmatyar would go on to become the darling of the agency and receive the bulk of the U.S. and Saudi aid coming in for the war against the Soviet Union, including a monopoly on Stinger missiles. Although an ISI and CIA favorite, Hekmatyar's legitimacy as a fighter, his effectiveness, his loyalties and even his goals raised doubts in the Peshawar-based American press corps. According to CBS News stringer Kurt Lohbeck in his book, Holy War, Unholy Victory, Hekmatyar's reputation was an elaborate ruse concocted by the CIA and Pakistan's ISI to elicit Congressional support for the Mujahideen, and little else.

Gulbuddin had no effective fighting organization. He had not a single commander with any military reputation for fighting the Soviets or the Afghan regime. He had made alliances with top regime military figures. And he had killed numerous other Mujahiddin commanders. Yet the United States government and the covert agencies were doing their best to convert that lie into reality.

The man largely responsible for peddling Hekmatyar's dubious credentials to Washington was Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who had been carefully shoehorned into strategic positions on both the House Appropriations Committee and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence by then Republican congressman from Wyoming, Dick Cheney. Following the war against the Soviets, Hekmatyar's reputation didn't save him when his failure to establish a Pakistani friendly government in Kabul lost him Saudi and American sponsorship. But while American influence flowed to the Taliban, Hekmatyar continued to lobby for sponsorship and a return to power by acquiring political asylum in Iran, trying to join ranks with Al Qaeda and cutting deals with the Taliban.

Marked for death by the CIA following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Hekmatyar survived a Predator drone attack in May 2002 but continued to rally Taliban fighters against the United States and coalition forces. On February 19, 2003 both the United States Department of State and the United States treasury declared Hekmatyar a "global terrorist."

Reportedly now aligned with the Taliban, Hekmatyar's power base resides in the provinces near Kabul and the scattered pockets of Pashtun communities in the north and northeast. Yet, despite his label as a terrorist and major narcotics trafficker, his Hesb-i-Islami party supported Hamid Karzai's reelection bid in the August 20, 2009 elections and he is now reportedly being courted by special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke in the hopes of luring him into a relationship with the Afghan government.

As twisted as the original U.S. support for Islamic extremism may seem today following the events of 9/11 and nearly 9 years of war, the idea that Hekmatyar might somehow once again be on America's go-to list as a potential messiah for Washington goes beyond the pale of rational thinking and into the realm of Colonel Kurtz. Empowering Hekmatyar as a "method" for destabilizing Afghanistan in the early 1970's was at least, "unsound." Putting him back into a position of power and influence in Kabul as a method for resolving America's growing Afghan crisis reveals that the method is insane. Or, in the words of Captain Willard, "I don't see any method at all."

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of. "Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story"published by City Lights. They can be reached at

Copyright © Gould & Fitzgerald 2010 All rights reserved

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