The South Asia Channel

Gulbuddin ante portas – again

Veteran mujahedin and current no. 2 insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar gave a rare and extensive interview to German TV. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig thinks that he was trying a walk on the tightrope, responding to the opened doors for "reconciliation" while projecting that he is not too soft on the U.S. and Kabul’s offers ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Veteran mujahedin and current no. 2 insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar gave a rare and extensive interview to German TV. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig thinks that he was trying a walk on the tightrope, responding to the opened doors for "reconciliation" while projecting that he is not too soft on the U.S. and Kabul’s offers and strictly follows Islamic principles. And he asks: Why now and why to Germans?

Those who watched German ZDF’s prime time news ‘heute’ yesterday, were confronted with a familiar face after a long time: The country’s second public TV broadcaster aired parts of an "exclusive interview" with a grayed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, recorded somewhere "in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan" as Uli Gack, the responsible editor, explained on air. Originally 18 minutes long, only short parts were audible in the (Pashto) original and translated (its English transcript can be found here): that he demands the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan as precondition for peace talks (like the Taliban), that he considers suicide attacks against German troops as legitimate as long as they are "actively" involved in this war and that HIG does not need al Qaeda fighters and recommends them to withdraw and "fight in Palestine or Iraq."

(Pakistan’s Geo TV also had one in September, watch it here.)

Gack also reports that some HIG fighters in "have allied themselves with the Bundeswehr" in Northern Afghanistan (see our earlier blog on this subject here) after they were defeated by "alien fighters of al Qaeda and the Taliban" (or rather the Taliban; al Qaeda seems to have become a rather imprecise code for anyone who is not a local Talib there — or a label of convenience to get Western attention).

The interview snippets were combined with a description of Hekmatyar: a "warlord" and "leader of a terrorist organization," formerly one of the most important anti-Soviet mujahedin leaders who "forged many alliances and broke them again," fighting against "everyone" including former allies; that he was supported by the CIA in this time and that he is responsible for "the death of tens of thousands" Afghans — a reminder by Gack for most Westerners who tend to forget that there already was a round of war before 9/11 in Afghanistan and to idealize the former mujahedin leaders. (A local German paper recently even called HIG "moderate, almost social democratic.")

Afghans, in contrast, remember very well. Many I know, therefore, dread a return of "Engineer Saheb," the former Kabul university engineering student turned Islamist militant who started his career on the campus of Kabul University during which he was accused of the murder of a left-wing student activist. He was so militant that he even snubbed President Ronald Reagan and did not attend a White House reception for visiting mujahedin leaders in 1985 (when the president called them "the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers"). But he lost U.S. support only after he took Saddam’s side during the First Gulf War and even announced that he would dispatch some fighters there.

The published transcript offers more insight into HIG’s current position or how Hekmatyar wants to present them currently (since there are a few moderations in comparison to what he had stated in earlier interviews):

– That he considers the Karzai government as "imposed" on Afghans, as "non-Muslim supported" and "puppets" and therefore does not accept elections (as the previous, "U.S supervised" one) under it; instead there need to be "elections under Islamic rules and after we get freedom from all the occupational forces."

– He rejects that there was any ‘individual or collective connection" (i.e. talks) with the Karzai government on HIG’s behalf but that "some personal message was sent through some people" and calls current U.S. preconditions for talks as "surrender."

– However, asked about the High Peace Council in Kabul, he avoids direct criticism.

– He reiterates HIG’s peace plan that, after the withdrawal of foreign troops, "an Interim government which should be impartial and independent" should be established, "free and fair elections according to Islamic rules" held and all Islamic groups’ agree that "there will be no bloodshed for getting into power […, t]hey will not use arms against each other and […] not accept any support from outside to be in power."

– He states that "we don’t have any connection, contract or agreement with the Taliban or AQ[sic]" but "[w]e are supporting all those who are fighting against the intruders for our freedom"; he says that "[w]e have no grudge or enmity with the real Taliban, we consider each other brothers" and states that "we and coming Afghan generation[s] will never forget these sacrifices given by the Arab mujahedin" and expresses his hope "that god give us the opportunity to fight with them shoulder to shoulder under their command and pay [back our debt to them]." He also calls "those who are doing the suicide attacks in the mosque" as not having "any brains or faith."

– He did not clearly reject that (former) Hezb-e Islami members participated in the elections but accuses those "few members of Hezb-e Islami which you can count on your fingertips" that "have joined the puppet government" have been doing so "due to selfish motivations" and "have their membership cancelled and [been] thrown out" of the party.

– He confirms fighting between HIG and Taliban members in Baghlan, Maidan-Wardak, Logar, Nangrahar and Kapisa provinces but calls the latter forces that "in reality have direct connections with the Kabul government."

– He also confirms that Daud Abedi who had claimed that he had met members of the Holbrooke team as early as in April 2009 (reported here) is indeed a "representative of Hezb."

– He criticizes the Pakistani government for allowing U.S. drone strikes in their country, that it doesn’t have a "solid policy for Afghanistan" and "always take [sic] instructions from Americans."

In the ZDF interview, it became very obvious that Hekmatyar tried to walk on a political tight-rope. He apparently felt that he had to positively address different audiences. To the West, he projected himself as someone who might be willing to talk peace under certain circumstances although his Palestine remark might not earn him much credibility. To the Taliban who recently criticized him and fought his fighters, he presented himself as a good co-Mujahid with Islamic principles who is not soft at all vis-a-vis the "occupying forces" and Karzai. A HIG delegation, led by one of his sons-in-law and his deputy Ghairat Bahir had visited Kabul earlier this year and was even granted a meeting with the president himself — a remarkable gesture given that the talks were later declared "unsuccessful" (by HIG).

From the transcript, it becomes clear that the interview must have been done by proxy; Hekmatyar avoids answering some questions and there is no follow-up on them as an experienced journalist would do. In this context, one more question comes up: Why did Hekmatyar who is not known for giving many interviews (he is on the UN and U.S. terrorist sanctions lists, after all) particularly chose German TV for such a self-presentation?

HIG is known for good connections to Germany from the 1980s when many mujahedin supporters found political asylum there. Amongst them, there were many HIG sympathizers, and HIG had an (unofficial) office in Bonn, in the form of an Afghan refugee association. HIG fighters were involved in a training programme for cameramen in Germany, to accompany the Stinger missiles newly acquired from the U.S. (see Charlie Wilson’s War) and to show how effective they were. (I met one of them by chance during a walk in Paghman a few years ago.) This was part of a larger programme called "Gläsernes Afghanistan" (something like "Transparent Afghanistan") pushed by Wilson’s German equivalent, MP Jürgen Todenhöfer, a former right-winger (Brezhnev’s spokesman wanted to "flog and shoot" him) who turned into an opponent of the current war in Afghanistan ("Bin Laden killed less people than Bush"). Also, some journalists and aid workers maintain connections with Hekmatyar. As a result, leading HIG figures on their rounds though Kabul’s embassies and political offices during the drawn-out registration process of the legal wing of their party during 2005-2006, leading HIG figures radiated a lot of pro-German sympathy whenever they met a German.

Although they — after a whole year of persuasion — distanced themselves reluctantly from the "Engineer" and he disowned them in the ZDF interview in return, many in Afghanistan believe that many in this "dissident" wing as well as influential individual ex-HIG members would fall in line with their former Amir again as soon as they see him getting a foot into Kabul’s cabinets of power.

And exactly this seems to be the idea behind the interview of Hekmatyar’s: to position him for the talks advertised under the label of "reconciliation." Although it is too early still, sooner or later his hour might come. He knows what Gack says in the closing sentence of his report: "The West will not be able to chose its [sic!] negotiating partners if it wants peace in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar might be one of them." And he might feel that Germany probably is a good channel to pursue this plan.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published. He speaks Pashtu and Dari. 

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