Much has been written about Dr Ashraf Ghani’s choice of running mate, General Abdul Rashid Dostum – a ticket characterised as ‘technocrat plus warlord’ – but very little has been heard from or about the other man who might become Afghanistan’s next first vice president, Muhammad Khan. Apart from his being a senior Hezb-e Islami figure and a former MP (he won a seat in 2005, but failed to get into the 2010 parliament), scarcely anything has been written about him. Even his official campaign biography skips over huge chunks of his life. AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark has interviewed Muhammad Khan and delved into his background, finding out that he served twice as a Hezb-e Islami intelligence chief, once during the jihad in Peshawar and later during the civil war in Kabul.Muhammad Khan, Abdullah Abdullah's choice for vice president. Photo: Pajhwok
AAN only found out about Muhammad Khan’s job as head of Hezb-e Islami intelligence during the civil war of the mid-1990s through the chance remark of a journalist who was reporting at the time. Looking for more information, we requested his official campaign biography (1) and found it patchy in the extreme. There are precise dates and positions for his early years – his birth, education and what he did during the first years after the 1978 communist coup. It is then pretty well silent until 2005 when he was elected as an MP for Ghazni (registered as Khial Muhammad Muhammad Khan). Scarcely anything has been published about the man who may be the next first vice president. The media, like AAN itself, has rarely written more than a sentence about him and then, only after he joined Dr Abdullah’s ticket. A search of the internet produced just two online articles, both in Dari (from the Pamir Press and Shafaqna; the texts are identical, although the websites’ source is unknown. They add a little extra detail to the biography provided by the campaign team. (2)
Talking to several veteran journalists, two Hezb-e Islami sources, a human rights researcher and an Afghan who had dealings with Hezb-e Islami, it emerged that Muhammad Khan had been deputy and head of Hezb-e Islami intelligence in Peshawar at various times during the jihad. When asked about this, he was vague about what posts he had held and when.
These are the basic facts about Muhammad Khan’s life AAN has managed to glean:
- 1952 (3) Born in Qarabagh district, Ghazni, to a farming family. Attended the newly established Jamrad primary school and Sultan Mahmud Ghaznawi School in Qarabagh and then teacher training college in Gardez, Paktia. He told AAN he was the first member of his family to go to school.
- 1971-1976 Student at the engineering faculty of Kabul University. When asked, he said he had met fellow engineering student and future Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the university, but was recruited (4) in 1971 by Engineer Habib Rahman, an early leader of the Afghan Islamist movement and senior to Hekmatyar who was later killed in prison.
- 1976 After graduating, worked in the electricity department in Kabul. In 1979, was transferred to a factory in Gereshk, Helmand.
- July 1979 Joined the mujahedin. Appointed by Hekmatyar to be “in charge of the jihad” in Kabul for Hezb-e Islami where he operated for 18 months before leaving for Pakistan.
- 1981-1992 It is here that Muhammad Khan’s known life story gets patchy. His official biography says he “held different positions including being a member of the executive council of the party.” He told AAN: “I worked in different offices until I became a member of the Hezb-e Islami executive council [uzwiat dar ijraya], in “coordination, relations, refugees and information [insijam, irtibatat, muhajirin, ittila’at].” ‘Information’ was a euphemistic name for Hezb-e Islami intelligence at this time. The two web articles say, “During the time of his residency in Pakistan, he was in charge of refugees, deputy in charge of intelligence and finance and, later, for a second time, was in charge of refugees.”
Asked directly about his role as head of Hezb-e Islami intelligence, he said he could not remember the exact dates of when he had held this position, although he thought it had been before the Soviet withdrawal (which ended in February 1989). Another source, however, said he had been appointed after several senior Hezb-e Islami officials resigned following the Tanai coup of March 1990 (when Hekmatyar hatched a plot with his former arch-enemy, defence minister General Shahnawaz Tanai of the Khalqi wing of the PDPA, to topple President Najibullah).
- 1992-1996 Muhammad Khan’s official biography offers no information about this period, but he told AAN he was in Chahr Asyab, Hekmatyar’s base to the south of Kabul during the civil war: “I was in charge of refugees. For a few months, I worked as the representative of Hezb-e Islami in the Ministry of Finance. Mr [Muhammad Karim] Khalili [the current outgoing second vice president] was the minister.” He said he thought this had been in 1993.
Several sources (including reporters at the time and former Hezb-e Islami officials) named him as having been in charge of intelligence for some of this period. When asked, he said he had not been responsible for intelligence, but for security (masul-e amniyat). He was again vague as to when he had held this post; he thought it had been around 1994 and that he had held it for about a year.
During this period, he also told AAN, “I was put in prison by Marshal Fahim – may he rest in peace – when he headed the NDS… and held for 46 days.” (Fahim had headed intelligence for the Shura-ye Nazar network of Jamiat-e Islami and was then appointed head of intelligence in the mujahedin government.)
- 1996 Fled to Peshawar after the Taleban took Kabul. No more detail is known about what he did during this time.
- 2002 Returned to Kabul, “shortly after President Karzai came to power”. He was again detained and, this time, he told AAN, held for 86 days. He was one of hundreds of Hezb-e Islami members who were arrested by the Jamiat-controlled police while meeting at the house of another former Hezbi intelligence chief, Wahidullah Sabawun, in April 2002. The interior minister claimed they had foiled an anti-state plot (the author covered these detentions at the time). He gave no other detail about this period.
- September 2005 Won a parliamentary seat for Ghazni after getting two votes more than his nearest rival – who failed to gain a seat.
- November 2005 Was one of the Hezb-e Islami officials whose faction of the party was recognised as a legal political party. As deputy leader of the legal Hezb-e Islami, he told AAN that, after they had been allowed to open an “official office”, they had had “no relations with Mr Hekmatyar, his activities and polities. We are obedient to the government.”
- 2010 Ran for a parliamentary seat in Kabul but failed to secure enough votes.
- 2013 Becomes Abdullah’s running mate. He was chosen, says his campaign biography, by the Hezb-e Islami executive council. It seems this only happened after the chance to run with Abdullah had been turned down by the leader of the legal wing of Hezb-e Islami, the current Minister of Economy, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal.
Who is Muhammad Khan?
Leaving aside assessments of the relative chances of either presidential candidate, Muhammad Khan now has a basic fifty-fifty chance of being the next first vice-president of Afghanistan. Yet the public knows almost nothing about him or his background. In particular, detail is lacking about what he did as head of Hezb-e Islami intelligence during the jihad and the civil war, both periods in which his faction carried out grave war crimes. It should be stressed that his name does not appear in any of the reporting on war crimes committed between 1978 and 2001. Moreover, ‘head of intelligence’ does not necessarily mean he had real power or command responsibility – although it obviously could. AAN has therefore asked a variety of sources about what he might have been involved in, before putting some questions to Muhammad Khan himself.
The civil war (1992-1996)
Hezb-e Islami, like all other factions fighting over Kabul in the mid-1990s, used heavy artillery to deliberately bomb civilian areas. Together, they caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties and destroyed about a third of the Afghan capital. Hezb-e Islami’s bombing was particularly notorious for its magnitude and lack of discrimination. The Afghanistan Justice Project, which has produced the most thorough and comprehensive published account of the war crimes and their historical context of the 1978-2002 period, looked into Hezb-e Islami’s chain of command in its targeting of artillery during the civil war in Kabul. It does not mention Muhammad Khan or his intelligence department. (5)
This matches information from reporters and Hezb-e Islami sources who said the role of the head of intelligence at that time was minor to the war effort and that Muhammad Khan would not, for example, have been involved in choosing targets to bomb. The Hezb-e Islami sources also said that Hekmatyar was, by then, working directly with a number of parallel Hezb-e Islami intelligence bodies who answered to him personally. The sources described Muhammad Khan as not having been responsible for “anything much beyond logistics.” For example, said one, “If you needed a car for an operation, you would go to him.” These assessments also match Muhammad Khan’s own estimation of his job. He said he was not involved in the fighting or targeting, but rather: “Most of the contacts and relations were internal, [I was involved in] resolving problems among the different groups on the front lines and [ensuring] the security of Chahr Asyab and that region.”
The jihad era (1981-1992)
Potentially more serious is Muhammad Khan’s record in Peshawar. When asked about his work in intelligence there, he said, “Our job was [firstly] to foil plots against Hezb-e Islami and the other was to identify infiltrators from KhAD [Afghan state intelligence] inside the [fighting] fronts.” He also said they were responsible for “ensuring the security of all Hezb-e Islami officers in Pakistan and relations with the [Afghan] army, police and intelligence [understood as encouraging defection and gathering intelligence].”
However, during this time, Hezb-e Islami was the most powerful mujahedin faction in Pakistan and was fully supported by the ISI and the Pakistani state. In particular, its intelligence agency was strong, well-organised and greatly feared. “Hezb-e Islami intelligence officials,” said one Afghan who had dealings with the faction while trying to get detainees released, “had special ID cards, which meant the Pakistani police would not bother them, and special permits for their cars, which gave them unhindered freedom of movement.” The Afghanistan Justice Project report cited earlier also described the strong Hezb-e Islami/ISI links at this time as did Asia Watch (which went on to become part of the larger Human Rights Watch); it described a collaborative relationship between the factional and state intelligence agencies.
As with several other of the mujahedin factions, (6) there are credible allegations that Hezb-e Islami ran detention facilities where Afghans suspected of being supporters of the communist government or of rival mujahedin factions were detained and tortured. These included a facility in Shamshatoo refugee camp, where Muhammad Khan was also based. Asia Watch, in the report just cited, interviewed refugees in Pakistan in mid-1990 and gathered the names of some of those who had been allegedly detained there. It said:
[The detention facility] is reportedly a two-story prison, part of which is underground. According to some reports, it is located behind a clinic in the camp. Torture is reported to be routine, including severe beatings and the use of electric shock. The prison reportedly includes a section for women prisoners.
When asked whether he had been involved in the detention of Afghans, Muhammad Khan said: “My own home was in Shamshatoo and there was no detention centre in Shamshatoo, only our security offices which were dealing with the internal affairs of the war and one [weapons] depot.”
During the later 1980s and early 1990s, there was also a marked increase in threats, assassinations and disappearances within the diaspora community in Peshawar; those targeted included non-aligned intellectuals, Afghans working with ‘western’ aid agencies, women’s rights activists, leftists, members of rival mujahedin factions and supporters of the former king, Zaher Shah. Particularly in light of its strong links with the ISI and what people at the time said was its effective impunity to act, Hezb-e Islami was blamed for many of the killings, including one of the most notorious, that of Sayed Bahauddin Majrooh in February 1988. Majrooh was the publisher of the highly respected Afghan Information Centre Monthly Bulletin, which, a few months before his murder, had published the results of a survey that found that 70 percent of Afghan refugees supported the former king, Zahir Shah, over any of the mujahidin leaders (Hekmatyar got very few votes). Asia Watch reported that Majrooh had received death threats from Hezb-e Islami before his murder. The Afghanistan Justice Project also investigated the killing and has published details of who within Hezb-e Islami allegedly decided to kill him and who carried the murder out. It does not mention Muhammad Khan.
When asked about this and other killings in Peshawar at a time when he may have been head or deputy head of Hezb-e Islami intelligence (depending on his dates in position – which he does not recall), Muhammad Khan denied his faction had been involved:
[Majrooh] was not arrested. He and many other people were killed in the bazaar [ie by unknown people]. Many others, like [General Abdul Hakim] Katawazi [leader of a pro-monarchy group in Pakistani exile, actually killed much later in November 1995] and the father of President Karzai [Abdul Ahad Karzai, also killed much later, in 1999, in Quetta], were also killed, most likely by Pakistan. There was also the possibility of rivalries, but mainly it was the act of the Pakistani government. Most likely the ISI did these assassinations. Hezb-e Islami did not take responsibility for that.
More questions to be answered
Many were astounded when the Dr Abdullah/Muhammad Khan ticket was announced, bringing together as it did most of Jamiat-e Islami and a part, at least, of the legal Hezb-e Islami party (some members are supporting Ashraf Ghani, including another senior figure, Qutbuddin Helal, who also stood in the first round). The alliance, if it holds, could possibly heal one of the most bitter and deadly of enmities of the last few decades. (7) The pairing was at least as extraordinary as the Ghani/Dostum – ‘technocrat/warlord’ – ticket – the other presidential team now left in the race. However, General Dostum’s record is clear, with specific allegations of major war crimes to his name, (8) and has been much discussed during the election campaign. When his candidacy was announced, he issued an apology (of sorts) to “all who have suffered” in the “wars.” In other words, Dostum’s record has been firmly in the limelight from the beginning.
Compare this to the Muhammad Khan, from whom and about whom almost nothing has been heard. While no evidence specifically links him to crimes carried out by his faction, Hezb-e Islami, his vagueness on the dates and details of what he has done, and the seniority and type of positions he held at a time when his faction was committing grave war crimes, does necessitate a more detailed response from this potential next first vice president. In particular, an explanation of what he did in Peshawar in the 1980s and early 1990s would surely be of interest to Afghan voters.
(1) His biography, emailed to AAN by the Dr Abdullah campaign team, apparently took them some time to put together. They said they had to ask Muhammad Khan himself some questions to compile it. The full text is:
Biography of Engineer Mohammad Khan, the First Running-mate of the Reform and Partnership Team’s Presidential Candidate: Victory is on the way!
Engineer Mohammad Khan was born in 1330 in the district of Qara Bagh of Ghazni province where he finished his primary and secondary schooling. He then joined the Teacher’s College of Gardez from where he entered Kabul University. He obtained his under-graduate degree in electrical engineering in 1355. In 1365 he was assigned at the Gereshk electric plant as an electrical engineer. After the 7th of May coup d’état and the Soviets’ invasion, he resigned from his official post and joined the ranks of the Mujahidin so that he could participate in the liberation of his beloved country. During the years of Jihad (struggle) against the Soviets, he first served as the head of the central office of Kabul and then in the Hezb-e Islami party he held different positions including being a member of the executive council of the party. Mohammad Khan’s involvement in the Jihad and also in the refugee environment brought him close to the people; during these years he shared the pain and misery of his people and made him understand what their necessities were.
Mohammad Khan remained an active member of the Hezb-e Islami party during all the periods in last three decades and he used all his efforts from this organization for the freedom and well being of his people. Today he serves as the deputy to the chair of the party.
In 1389 he found his way into the lower house of the parliament as a representative of the people of Ghazni. At the Wolosi Jirga he was the chair of the transportation and traffic where he had many achievements. He was able to obtain legislation in the area of transportation and the country’s roads.
He has traveled to Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, Germany, Tajikistan, Russia and other such countries as official trips.
The Jamiat Islamic Party and the Hezb-e Islami Party both participated in the Jihad and were rivals during the 80s and 90s and now their grand alliance in this endeavor of electing a president is a sign of positive change in Afghanistan. In their executive council, the Hezb-e Islami decided to present Mohammad Khan as the first running-mate to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in the Reform and Partnership team in the 1393/2014 election.
(2) AAN’s translation of the two (identical) online articles is as follows:
Muhammad Khan, Abdullah Abdullah’s candidate for first vice president in the Afghan presidential elections was born in Ghazni in the year 1330.
He did his primary education in Jamran school in Qarabagh district of Ghazni province and his secondary education in Sultan Mahmoud in the same district. After this, he went to teacher training college in Gardez, Paktia Province.
In 1350, he went to the engineering faculty in Kabul University and graduated in 1355. After that, he was busy working in the electricity department in the capital, Kabul.
A year later, during communist rule, in 1358, he was transferred to a factory in Grishk in Helmand province and was working there until Saratan 1358, after which he joined the ranks of the mujahedin.
He was appointed in charge of the jihad in Kabul by Hezb-e Islami, under the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and after 18 months, for a second time, lived in Quetta, Baluchistan and Peshawar, in Pakistan.
Muhammad Khan, during the time of his residency in Pakistan, was in charge of refugees, was deputy in charge of intelligence, and finance and, later, for a second time, was in charge of refugees.
With the victory of the mujahedin in 1371, he was engaged as a member of the commission of the finance minister with Muhammad Karim Khalili, now second vice president.
With the success of the Taleban, Muhammad Khan became marginal in political activism, but after the defeat of the Taleban in 2001, he was voted in as an MP for Ghazni in the parliament.
In the first parliament, he was in charge of the communication commission. In the second parliament, he stood as a candidate for Kabul but was not able to garner [enough] votes.
In the past years, his family has had hostile relations with the Taleban and his brother, Naqibullah, along with several other members of his family were killed by the Taleban.
About a year ago, Muhammad Khan’s young daughter was the target of some stray bullets and was killed.
(3) Muhammad Khan was recruited to Jamiat-e Islami; this was before the splits in the late 1970s that led to Jamiat and Hezb-e Islami becoming separate and rival parties, both claiming to carry the mantle of Islamist opposition to the Kabul governments.
(4) Many of the dates in this piece were originally given in the Persian calendar, which starts on Nawruz, the Spring Equinox. To keep things simple, I have used only the Gregorian equivalent for the first nine months of the Persian year, eg Muhammad Khan was transferred to a factory in Helmand in 1358. This is equivalent to 21 March 1979 to 20 February 1980, but I have only mentioned 1979. A useful website for converting dates is here.
(5) The Afghanistan Justice Report has given this analysis of Hezb-e Islami’s command and control chain for its bombing of Kabul during the civil war:
Hizb-i Islami throughout the conflict had maintained a reputation as highly organized and centralized faction. It had a complex leadership structure, with successive tiers in its decision- making body, and a powerful party leader. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and his faction further refined the faction’s structure to cope with the rigors of the struggle for control of the capital. Their reorganization sought to enhance central decision-making and the capacity of centrally controlled military units. Thus, Hikmatyar operated a military council (shura nizami) meeting in Charasiab to advise him on military affairs throughout the conflict. Likewise, he established the central military units Firqa Sama and Lashkar Issar. Hikmatyar directly appointed and financed he commanders of these units while much of the rest of the Hizb-i Islami force consisted of de facto militias who were personally loyal to their local leader. Authority was particularly centralized in the use of heavy weapons, as the shura nizami and Hikmatyar would approve all major offensives and even discuss targets. It is therefore possible to identify a hierarchy of commanders and officials within Hizb-i Islami who, because of their active participation in planning and launching bombardments, share in the responsibility for the resulting war crimes.
Level 1. The field commanders of units where artillery and rockets were deployed and who sought the use of artillery in areas for which they were responsible. The Afghanistan Justice Project has obtained testimony on the identity of these commanders, which will be included in the full report.
Level 2. The battery commanders who directly supervised the feeding of coordinates and launching of bombardments. Names of key battery commanders are included above.
Level 3. The director of artillery who supervised the whole operation and applied his technical expertise to enable Hizb-i Islami to sustain the bombardments. This position was held from late 1992 by artillery officer Toran Khalil.
Level 4. The shura nizami (military council) who discussed major operations and strategies in advance and had a potential to order effective safeguards limiting civilian losses. The council had 10 to 12 members, and included top Hizb-i Islami commanders and military figures from around Kabul, including two figures designated as star generals, Faiz Mohammad and Kashmir Khan.
Level 5. The Hizb-i Islami chief of staff, who oversaw military operations in Kabul and had opportunities to identify and address the need for safeguards. The position was held initially by Sabaown, and subsequently by commander Kashmir Khan.
Level 6. The party leader had ultimate responsibility for the military strategy, was closely informed of the progress and consequences of the rocketing and was the most influential figure on the military council. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar served as leader throughout the conflict.
(6) The Afghanistan Justice Project names the following detention facilities as under the control of Hezb-e Islami (Hekmatyar) in Pakistan at this time: Shamshatoo refugee camp, Warsak Michni, north of Peshawar, Mohammad Gard in Kunar Province (also used by Sayyaf’s Ittihad), Bagzai 1 in Kurram Agency, (also used by Sayyaf), and Khund Bachlor in the Kurram Agency. It says Sadda Shasu in the Kurram Agency was used by Sayyaf while another facility, Shamshatoo 2, was used by Hezb-e Islami (Khalis). It says Lejdey in Farkhar district, Takhar Province, Afghanistan, was similarly used by Shura-ye Nazar.
(7) “Unfortunately,” said Muhammad Khan, when asked about the decades-old Jamiat/Hezbi enmity and the prospects for their work together in government, “there were some problems and animosities between the two parties. It is common that in every human society ,especially in Afghanistan, that between two villages, two parties, and two communities there are some fighting and arguments, but eventually they end the animosities. In 2013, the leadership of both parties decided that both will sincerely leave their previous animosities behind and will work together in the most important issues of the country.”
(8) The best account of Dostum’s rise to power, including detail on his alleged war crimes can be found in the previously cited Afghanistan Justice Project’s report, Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity:1978-2001 Documentation and analysis of major patterns of abuse in the war in Afghanistan 2005. The allegations include command responsibility for arbitrary killing, looting and rape by his militia, both in the latter Najibullah period and civil war, and in the killing or allowing to die of Taleban prisoners in late 2001 (which US Special Forces also have questions to answer about, discussed here). It also includes allegations of ordering the bombing of civilian areas in Kabul during the civil war.
See also The UN Mapping Report (2005) which covers the same period and although suppressed, but can be read here, and for the civil war period, Human Rights Watch Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020