Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Charismatic, Absolutist, Divisive: Hekmatyar and the impact of his return

Borhan Osman 16 min

One of the anti-Soviet mujahedin leaders, Mawlawi Yunus Khales, famously likened Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to a pair of trousers that had caught fire: get rid of them and be naked or keep them on and burn. Hekmatyar, Khales appeared to be saying, is too necessary to throw away and too problematic to keep close. So, what happens to a government that signs a peace accord with this man, who is both charismatic and divisive, especially a government which already suffers from internal discord? As celebratory billboards with his picture are being raised – and immediately defaced – in Kabul, AAN’s Borhan Osman takes a look at the implications of Hekmatyar’s return to Afghan politics.

Posters celebrating the return of Gulbuddin Hetkmatyar have been put up in Kabul. Within hours, they were defaced. “I have always wanted my country free and independent,” this one says. "I think of nothing else.” (Photo: Ehsan Qaane)Posters celebrating the return of Gulbuddin Hetkmatyar have been put up in Kabul. Within hours, they were defaced. “I have always wanted my country free and independent,” this one says. "I think of nothing else.” (Photo: Ehsan Qaane)

A peace deal with a party – or with an individual?

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e Islami (often abbreviated to HIG: Hezb-e Islami-ye Gulbuddin) is due to return to Kabul in the wake of the peace deal he signed with President Ashraf Ghani on 29 September 2016. The agreement, hailed by the Afghan government as the first major peace achievement of the last fifteen years, was the climax of six and half years of negotiations, which had been fraught with interruptions and breakdowns. The accord became possible after Hekmatyar dropped his most substantial pre-condition for any deal, the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The agreement contains a commitment by HIG to stop its military activities and fully respect the laws of Afghanistan. The government in return, committed itself to requesting the delisting of HIG leaders and members from sanctions by the United Nations and others. The government also declared an amnesty for the HIG leader and his followers for their past crimes and agreed to recruit HIG fighters into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and provide townships for 20,000 refugee families affiliated with HIG and living in Pakistan to settle in. The government said, as well, that it would free security and political prisoners detained for their links to HIG. For Hekmatyar himself, the government pledged to provide him with several homes and an honorary status, as it says in the agreement, in appreciation of his struggle “for peace and freedom of Afghanistan.”

This deal is basically about reconciliation with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar personally. Most provisions of the agreement were designed to make his return look prestigious and enable him to sell the agreement to his followers by demonstrating that it was also beneficial to them. Since Hekmatyar himself is at the centre of the deal, his return to the Afghan capital has been seen as the main manifestation of the peace agreement. HIG negotiators have kept insisting his return could only come after various aspects of the deal were implemented; implementing the deal has, so far, not gone smoothly.

The UN Security Council took Hekmatyar off its sanctions list on 4 February this year. Other Hezb leaders and Hezb-e Islami itself were never on it. The United States still has Hekmatyar and Hezb-e Islami on its proscribed list, but this is a lot less serious as it only bans their funds going into the US. America also still has a bounty on the heads of two Hezbi commanders accused of terrorist crimes in Afghanistan (including the attack on the Finest supermarket in Kabul in January 2011 which killed all the members of an Afghan family). As to prisoners, the government has only agreed to release those convicted of less serious crimes – to the fury of HIG negotiators. The release of some of the prisoners came on 2 May, days after Hekmatyar’s coming back to Afghanistan, although before his entry into the capital. Both sides have also been haggling over the distribution of plots of land to refugees associated with the party. They have also been wrangling over the nature of the welcoming ceremony which the government will hold.

HIG representatives have frequently taken to the media to accuse the government of not upholding the agreement. They have particularly accused circles around Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (who belongs to Hezb-e Islami’s old rivals, Jamiat-e Islami) of trying to sabotage the peace accord. According to diplomats and sources in the government that AAN has spoken to, HIG negotiators even threatened to withdraw from the agreement if the government failed to meet their demands. However, bargains have now been struck and Hekmatyar is coming back. The first official ceremony – a welcome by government leaders including Second Vice-President Sarwar Danish and National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar – took place in Jalalabad on 30 April 2017. Hekmatyar made a long speech, mostly dedicated to defending the peace deal against possible Taleban criticism. The Taleban have not officially commented on the deal or on Hekmatyar’s return, but on social media, Taleban members have consistently denounced Hekmatyar’s signing of the peace accord as surrender, a submission to the government.

Hekmatyar has yet to arrive in Kabul itself, a city which, during the civil war of the mid-1990s, he ordered ruthless bombardments of, regardless of the extreme harm done to the civilian population. He was not alone in this – and many of the commanders and leaders of the other factions fighting over Kabul at that time took senior government positions, fifteen years ago, in 2001. However, Hezb-e Islami was considered ‘first among equals’ among the various factions who together left a third of Kabul destroyed and tens of thousands of people dead. One example of Hezb-e Islami rocketing came in August 1992 when, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was providing emergency health care to the city at the time, 1000 to 2000 people were killed and eight to nine thousand left injured (cited here).

Even before that, Hekmatyar, has been accused of carrying out large numbers of assassinations, particularly in Peshawar, where he targeted those who, like him, were also anti-Soviet and anti-PDPA. There are detailed accusations of him ordering the assassination of monarchists, women’s rights activists, intellectuals and mujahedin from other factions. As noted in a previous AAN dispatch, one of the most notorious assassinations was that of Sayed Bahauddin Majruh in February 1988. Majruh was the publisher of the highly respected magazine, which, a few months before his murder, had published the results of a survey that found that 70 per cent of Afghan refugees supported the former king, Zahir Shah, over any of the mujahedin leaders. Hekmatyar got very few votes. Asia Watch reported that Majruh had received death threats from Hezb-e Islami before his murder.

Hezb-e Islami already part of the state’s fabric

Hekmatyar will come to Kabul as head of a rather unusual party. Hezb-e Islami, taken as a collective political force, has been difficult to classify in the years since the fall of the Taleban as either pro- or anti-government. One part of the party, which has slowly become the largest, has supported the state and become part of the fabric of government in the post-2001 political order. Some senior Hezbi leaders, such as Wahidullah Sabawun, who once served (among others) as Hekmatyar’s head of intelligence, started their political activities in Kabul in early 2002. Others, such as Khalid Faruqi and Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, joined later, establishing the largest Hezb-e Islami party in 2005 in Kabul; Arghandiwal became one of the several Hezbi ministers in the cabinet. The other part of the party continued an ‘armed struggle’ against the government until the signing of the September 2016 peace deal, although the effects of this struggle had become increasingly difficult to discern. Both of the factions have identified themselves as Hezb-e Islami, an undivided party. Both have taken pride in Hezb-e Islami’s legacy and called Hekmatyar their uncontested supreme leader.

The loyalty to Hekmatyar from both parts of Hezb-e Islami has continued, tacitly by one part, explicitly by the other. On paper, the party might have appeared to be fighting itself, given that Hezbis were on both sides of the ‘frontline’. However, many Afghans quoted a line about members of this party: “Once a Hezbi, always a Hezbi.” In other words, many Afghans believe Hezbis remain committed to their brand of Islamist politics and to their leader, regardless of changing circumstances or how they may present themselves.

Some analysts have gone further, reading the division of Hezb-e Islami along pro and anti-state lines as a tactic by Hekmatyar aimed at distributing his men on both sides of the ‘frontline’. However, the fact that Hekmatyar, at times, explicitly excommunicated those in the government casts doubt on this reading. His tone towards the pro-state segment was particularly harsh during the initial years of their joining the government, between 2005 and 2010.(1)

By the time Hekmatyar signed the peace deal with the government in September 2016, the overwhelming majority of Hekmatyar’s followers were living under the Afghan government. Given that the bulk of Hezbis were already on the side of the Afghan state and that Hezb-e Islami’s ‘armed struggle’ has dwindled to close-to-nothing, the significance of the Hezb peace deal is mainly reconciliation with Hekmatyar himself. It is his return to Kabul that makes this agreement important. Given his centrality to the peace accord, it is worth looking at the man himself and his personality traits and what impact they may have as he tries to fit into a new political environment. 

Hekmatyar, a charismatic leader? But divisive

President Ghani, in an interview with AAN during the presidential campaign of 2014, counted Hekmatyar as one of the five charismatic modern Afghan leaders (along with Ahmad Shah Massud, Abdul Ali Mazari, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mullah Muhammad Omar), meaning a leader who inspired – or inspires – devotion in his followers by force of personality (and not implying that the leader is either a good or a bad person). Charisma is one of the qualities many mention about Hekmatyar. According to his followers, it arose through his closeness to them. Unlike other mujahedin leaders who were accessible only to the highest of the party hierarchy, they say, Hekmatyar preferred sharing meals with his fighters, would personally attend funerals and observe the ranks closely. His intellectual and writing skills and oratory were other elements of his personality that made him attractive to Hezbi members.

However, Hekmatyar’s strength lay not just in charisma, but in his capacity to organise. He created a party which, in the words of the Afghanistan Justice Project, “maintained a reputation as a highly organized and centralized faction. It had a complex leadership structure, with successive tiers in its decision-making body, and a powerful party leader.” Its ideology was also much more coherent than most of the other mujahedin tanzims (factions) and, until the mid-1990s, as Pakistan’s favoured mujahedin leader, Hekmatyar also got the biggest share of Western, Arab and Pakistani largesse. This helped him ‘grow’ his party and following. Loyalty to the leadership and to the organisational brand, a well-defined party structure and the vitality of its ideology, made Hezb-e Islami stand out as a strong organisation.

Hekmatyar has had an absolutist leadership style, based on building a small clique of loyalists around him, although those in this clique who questioned him or become too powerful were side-lined. An example of this is the constant reshuffling of his chiefs of intelligence (at least five people held this position during the years of anti-Soviet jihad). Compare that with Ahmad Shah Massud’s decades-long association with his chief of intelligence, Qasim Fahim. Hekmayar still has a grand vision of himself and his party. In his writings and interviews, he depicts himself as a visionary leader, an Islamic thinker and an authoritative theologian. In one book entitled Khubuna aw Taʿbirona (Dreams and Interpretations), Hekmatyar even published his interpretation of one of an Arab fighter’s dream as suggesting he could be the Mahdi, the divinely-mandated spiritual leader expected in the end times, at least for Afghans.(2) In conversations this author has had with Hezbis over the years, many have painted their leader as a man who is beyond reproach and whose decisions are above criticism.

To add to the mix of personality traits, his irritability is also frequently mentioned. People say he is easily irritated and ready to use extreme measures when angry. Making U-turns in alliances and using emotionally-charged rhetoric towards his foes during his years of anti-Soviet jihad and the insurgency are given as examples of this.

Hekmatyar’s absolutism has at times made him a divisive person, even within the inner circle of his party and even within his family. He favoured one son, Habib Rahman (from his younger wife), at the cost of another, Jamaluddin, his older son from his older wife. Habib Rahman has been acting in recent years as the spokesman and political representative of Hekmatyar, while Jamaluddin has been virtually removed from his position as head of the youth chapter of HIG. That made Jamaluddin turn against negotiations and throughout 2016 he accused his father of selling out the values of jihad for the sake of power, according to people close to him in the youth branch. He only got back on board with his father months after the signing of the agreement, and is now back leading the youth chapter. Hekmatyar also at times favoured one of his sons in-law over another, triggering competition between the two. Humayun Jarir has ended up with no specific portfolio within Hezb, while Ghairat Bahir is head of the political committee of the party. According to people close to the family, the two men vied to influence Hekmatyar’s decisions on details of the peace deal.

How much of Hekmatyar’s capacity for strong leadership and how much charisma he still has after being two decades away from day-to-day politics of Afghanistan will be seen. We simply do not know how strong he might still be or what control he may have over the party. In recent years, most of what has kept him in the public gaze has been noisy rhetoric, rather than actions, controversial statements rather than successful military operations. Examples here would be his Eid message from August 2013 threatening Hazaras for “encroaching on the rights of other ethnicities” and a year later, in April 2014, his declaration that he was prepared to send fighters to Yemen to fight in support of Saudi forces against the Shia Houthis. He also made headline news in August 2009 when he mocked the presidential elections and asked for an interim government to be set up but then, in January 2014, called on Afghans to vote, albeit for Hezbi candidates in the provincial elections in order to make Hezb dominate the provincial councils (3).

Adding Hekmatyar to the fragile mix of Afghan politics?

Hekmatyar is, then, a fractious and polarising leader, dividing Afghans between his staunch followers and those who detest him outright. The return of such a political leader, it would seem, should have an impact on the current situation on several fronts, particularly given the already fragile landscape of politics in Afghanistan. These include:

  • Religious legitimacy (for some): This is probably the asset the government would most likely try to utilise. Hekmatyar is dubbed by his supporters as the ‘emir of twin jihads’, referring to his struggle against the Soviets and then against the Americans. Such outsized ‘jihadi credentials’ could present a challenge to the legitimacy of the Taleban insurgency. So far, the leader of Dawat-e Islami (formerly Etihad-e Islami) Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf dominated this discursive struggle. He has been vocal in rejecting the Taleban’s ‘jihad’ against the Afghan state as void of Islamic legitimacy, and thus an Islamically-illegal ‘rebellion’.
  • Ethnic and sectarian tensions: Hekmatyar has a following among all the major ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Uzbeks and even Hazaras, but the backbone of his base has always been Pashtun. He has also not been afraid to play the sectarian, anti-Shia card, something which Afghan politicians and ordinary people have generally shied away from. Hekmatyar began his call to arms in 2002, for example, with a declaration in which he lamented the marginalisation of Pashtuns. In more recent writings, he imagined himself as a powerful Islamist who could unify the Pashtuns behind him and become their ‘Saladin’. His writings and interviews in recent years have also included diatribes against Hazaras. He has attributed their growing power to Iran, which he accuses of working to spread Shiism in the region.

Against this backdrop, his coming to the fold of the state brings a prospect of heightening ethnic debates in the Afghan politics. This tendency is already present – witness recent elections and political movements.(4) Some critics of Ashraf Ghani view the deal as a personal scheme by the president to bolster his Pashtun base in the government (his camp led the peace efforts, whereas Dr Abdullah’s camp remained suspicious of it) (see for example here, and here)

  • Factionalism: Hekmatyar has long lamented the dominance of his old enemies, Jamiat-e Islami/Shura-e Nezar, (5) over government positions and economic resources during the post-Bonn era. If he continues his decades-long antipathy to Jamiat, this could undermine the recent rapprochement between it and many pro-government Hezbis. (In 2014, they came together in the presidential elections team of Dr Abdullah and Muhammad Khan, another former head of Hezbi intelligence.) Enmity from Hekmatyar could trigger a backlash from Jamiat, a still powerful political force in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar’s pre-recorded video message for the peace deal signing ceremony on 29 September suggested he has not yet backed down from his harsh hostile tone towards his former foes. His speech was dotted with what appeared to be coded references towards Jamiat, (6) veiled threats against “those who invited foreign forces to invade Afghanistan, and then joined these forces in a war against their own nation” and those “bought by foreign force” for whom the “war is a tool for obtaining power and resources.”
  • Unification of Hezbis? Despite Hekmatyar’s reputation as a strong leader, there seems to be a considerable cleavage between him and what has become his increasingly diversified political base. One issue is an apparent difference in ideology and attitudes towards doing politics. The Hezbi heavyweights who, during the past decade, have participated in civilian politics (elections, parliament, appointments, running ministries and provinces), have adopted a realpolitik attitude: preserving their interests has mattered more to them than ideology. Unlike Hekmatyar, they have been muted on ideological discussions. They have also partnered with those political forces that their supreme leader has long lambasted as enemy number one: Jamiat/Shura-e Nezar.

Secondly, possible conflict over political and economic interests may make many Hezbis reluctant to fully integrate under Hekmatyar’s leadership. Although Hezbi leaders of all factions, including the largest one led by Arghandiwal, have said they consider Hekmatyar their supreme leader (Muhammad Khan in April 2014 told AAN that Hekmatyar remained the emir, the overall leader of all Hezbi factions and that nobody could contest this status), it is unlikely they will risk the political gains they have earned over the past decade for what might be Hekmatyar’s non-pragmatic positions. Indeed, indications of a discord between Hekmatyar and Arghandiwal have already emerged in statements issued by the two men in early April. Arghandiwal in a statement sent to the media asked Hekmatyar not to introduce people from the Kabul-based Hezb as cabinet ministers to the government (as part of negotiations for distribution of some seats to HIG). Hekmatyar responded by implicitly accusing Arghandiwal’s Hezb of treating the current distribution of power “by John Kerry” as untouchable and said, “We consider it a shame to partner with those devoid of popular support and dependent on others…who oppose appointment of competent people…who does not like our friendship and are afraid of us.”

Another early sign of the division came in mid-March 2017 when Hekmatyar ordered internal Hezb elections in all provinces to re-organise the provincial branches. The order left the election of the head of the provincial departments pending on consultation with Hekmatyar. This was seen by many of those in Arghandiwal’s Hezb as a coup against him as he already had provincial department structures in place.

Expecting unquestioning obedience from party members may well be a tall order in 2017. Hekmatyar will find a political environment that is strikingly different from the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. Then, he was the distributor of the resources which poured into his tanzim for fighting the Soviets; those who won his confidence received the biggest share. In today’s Afghanistan, he may be seen by those Hezbis who have already become part of the state as a competitor for resources, both power and money. Most of the Hezbi notables have made their mark on politics in the absence of Hekmatyar. Unlike him, they have moved a long way from the ideological slogans of the jihad era and are mainly interested in what brings in the money.

No easy integration

Hekmatyar’s return marks the beginning of his integration into Afghan civilian politics, not the end of it. Given his self-aggrandisement, that integration may not be smooth. The peace agreement has already been a source of dispute between his team and the government, with the two sides bickering over various issues: how and at what level should Hekmatyar’s welcoming ceremony be organised; what kind of residence should be rented for his accommodation and; how many bodyguards should he have and who should they be? The share in power, provision of government jobs and recruitment of Hezbis into the ANSF, the allocation of land for returning refugees allied with Hezb-e Islami all also remain sources of contention between Hekmatyar and the government. Some in government are unwilling to give much to him at all. Hekmatyar’s representatives have already accused Jamiatis in the government of trying to derail the peace accord in the government, both during the negotiations period and after signing of the deal. One area that may be thorny is the enlisting of Hezb-e Islami’s fighters and commanders into the ANSF; the process of integrating them seems unlikely to be smooth, especially given the appointment of Amrullah Saleh, a key Jamiat/Shura-ye Nezar figure as senior minister on ANSF reforms and appointments.

Then there are the coming elections in which Hezbis will participate. Some have interpreted the peace deal as Ghani attempting to realign Afghan political forces ahead of the next presidential election. If that was so, the prospect of a well-organised, largely Pashtun party ‘on-side’ would make sense. However, given the history of Hekmatyar’s obsession with national leadership, it is difficult to imagine him wanting anything but the presidency itself or deigning to campaign for anyone except himself.

Hekmatyar’s over-confidence in the popularity of Hezb-e Islami has, in the past, made him talk of elections more than any other mujahedin leader as the favoured path to power. Before and during the civil war, he would often call on other mujahedin factions to hold public elections, so that the nation could decide its leader and thus settle the perennial disputes over power. However, his first experience of quasi-public elections puts into question any actual claims to favour democracy. In early 1990, Hezb-e Islami was fighting over areas of Kunar with a Salafi group led by Jamil al-Rahman. Hekmatyar called for elections as to determine who should rule Kunar. When the results favoured the Salafis, Hekmatyar rejected the validity of the votes and escalated his attacks against the Salafi group. (For some details about the election, see here), although the full picture is yet not there).

While Hekmatyar’s stated passion for electoral politics at the national level has yet to be tested in any poll, his record is already enough to make many wonder if he is genuinely ready to accept pluralistic politics. If he has really embraced the founding principles of the post-2001 political order, as many of his followers have done, this would be a marked evolution. On the other hand, if he fails to play by the rules of Afghan democracy, that could be a risk to the country’s already delicate political set-up.

Edited by Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark


(1) This is based on statements and interviews published by HIG, most of which are no longer available online, but have been archived by AAN.

(2) In some Islamic narrations about the end times, the Mahdi (guided one) is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will emerge to rid the world of evil. The Mahdi’s tenure, according to a doctrine shared by Sunnis and Shias, albeit in different variations, will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Isa), who will assist him against Dajjal (the Antichrist).

Here is the relevant excerpt from the book translated from Pashto:

Let me share with you the story of a meeting with the martyr Osama (bin Laden) and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the first year of the American invasion when I was living in Shigal (district of Kunar), Osama, Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as Hamza and Osman the two sons of Osama and Abu al-Ghaith al-Kuwaiti were also with me. We were sitting around a dining table when Osama recalled a dream seen by an Arab brother….He saw that “we (Arab fighters) take shelter in an area resided by the Shinwari tribe. When living there, we received the news that Mahdi has appeared. People are carrying on their shoulders a person standing on a throne, in a position higher than us. They have tied his hands to his body with a rope. We are told this person is Mahdi…when we asked who are the people in this area (Shigal) by tribe. They said they are Shinwaris. I was puzzled to know there are Shinwaris in Kunar.” (Osama said) all parts of that dream has materialised, but that he did not know what was the interpretation of Mahdi with his hands tied.

In those days, comrades have provided me with an accommodation a bit higher than Osama and his friends. I was told to avoid meetings, interviews and contacts with strangers. I was feeling those days as if my hands were tied. With regard to that situation, I clearly understood the interpretation of the dream. I told them (Osama and others around the table): According to Quran, there is a hadi and mahdi (both meaning spiritual guide, but the latter also referring to the Islamic messiah) for each nation. It is possible that God has bestowed me with the honour to become the hadi for this nation, but they have tied my hands here.

Hekmatyar, Khubuna aw Taʿbirona , pp. 87, Adobe Digital Edition)

(3) Examples of the few Hezb attacks that made it into the headlines include: a February 2014 attack which killed two contractors for the US-led military coalition and wounded several Afghan civilians in Kabul; and a suicide attack which killed fifteen people, nine Afghans and six foreigners again in the capital in May 2013.

(4) The mapping out of political and military organisations onto ethnic communities has been seen in Afghan politics and the conflict since at least the 1970s. See, for example, the original Hezb-e Islami/Jamiat-s Islami split within Afghan Islamists and within Afghan communists in the 1970s (which mapped out onto differences between Pashto and Tajik speakers) or the way mujahedin groups emerged, again with ethnicity as one factor in their make-up, or the way members of the failing government of Dr Najib defected to mujahedin groups based on their ethnicity, with Khalqis tending to join Hezb and Parchamis joining Jamiat, or the bitter way that factional control of neighbourhoods in Kabul during the civil war played out in ethnic violence directed at civilians associated with ‘enemy’ factions.

(5) As noted in previous AAN dispatches, Shura-e Nezar was the most powerful sub-group of the broad ‘Jamiat family’. It was basically a network of Jamiat-related military commanders established during the anti-Soviet guerrilla war by Ahmad Shah Massud to make the military struggle more effective and in not-so-open opposition to Ustad Rabbani’s political leadership. Although officially disbanded, it is still a powerful network. Massud’s brothers (Ahmad Zia and Ahmad Wali) as well as Dr Abdullah and former interior and defence ministers Yunus Qanuni and Bismillah Muhammadi belong.

(6) Hekmatyar’s message was replete with veiled references against those he chastised as “a small clique” (tolgey in Pashto) whom he accused of having clung to power with the support of foreign troops. He left little doubt as to whom he was referring to. Hekmatyar has used the same term in past messages, interviews and articles to refer to his longstanding political rivals Shura-e Nezar/Jamiat-e Islami.

For an overview of AAN’s past reporting relevant to Hekmatyar’s return, see this overview. 


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