'Butcher' ex-warlord Hekmatyar rankles Taliban rulers

AFP , Monday 29 Apr 2024

In Afghanistan, where dissent is muzzled, one figure has emerged as an unlikely critic of the Taliban authorities: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a sidelined ex-warlord who is increasingly drawing official ire.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar poses for a photo, in Kabul, Afghanistan. AP


The onetime anti-Soviet commander, and prime minister in 1996 and 1997, has made public calls for elections and girls' education -- taboo demands under the current administration.

Hekmatyar, 76, left Afghanistan when the Taliban rose to power the first time but returned to Kabul in 2017 and remained even as legions of prominent figures fled the 2021 Taliban takeover.

As chief of his Hezb-e-Islami radical party, he commands crowds, but analysts doubt the sincerity of his speeches and say there is little chance he can rally nationwide popular resistance.

Nonetheless, his criticism has triggered a crackdown by the Taliban authorities, who have banned him from speaking at his mosque on Fridays, evicted him from his home, and pulled his party TV channel from the airwaves.

"You stayed after the victory," Taliban government Justice Minister Abdul Hakim Sharai told him at a public event in early April.

"If you didn't like it, you should have left.

"Parties have no place in this system. According to law, taking the name of any party is a crime."

Hekmatyar's willingness to flout authorities makes him a unique figure in today's Afghanistan, one of the only politicians still speaking out against Taliban officials when nearly all opposition has been muted.

Broadcasting dissent

With his long white beard, black turban and thin glasses, Hekmatyar broadcast a daring speech on his party channel Barya TV in March.

"In every political decision, people's presence is necessary, either directly or through their elected and trusted representatives," he said.

"Unfortunately, women are deprived of most of the rights that Islam has given them," he added in a reference to Taliban government edicts barring women and girls from education.

But there is a gulf between what Hekmatyar says now and what he has done in the past.

From the 1990s to the 2010s, his insurgents committed civilian massacres, assassinations of intellectuals and acid attacks on women, according to human rights monitors.

His bombing of Kabul during the civil war from 1992 to 1996 caused thousands of deaths and earned him the nickname the "Butcher of Kabul".

His recent comeuppance has not been linked to alleged war crimes, but to his challenges to Kabul's new rulers.

In December 2022, a university linked to his party was closed and he was banned from making Friday speeches at a mosque he built on government grounds.

At the end of March, he was forced out of his residence, which had been provided by the former foreign-backed government after he returned from 20 years of exile and was guaranteed immunity.

And this month, Barya TV was blocked on grounds of "violating Islamic values".

"These are not positive signs for him," said a former Western diplomat familiar with Afghanistan.

But authorities "are a little stuck with him, because he benefits from a network of support and protection within the Taliban -- some of his former commanders".

Kabul and Kandahar

A senior member of Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami party insisted he "is not going to be silent" but his remarks are not designed to "provoke", rather to outline the party's vision.

"We believe Islam is not a dictatorship. The head of the Taliban is allergic" to this belief, he said.

Analysts say there is a measure of division within the Taliban -- between the ostensible government in Kabul and powerbrokers in southern Kandahar, from where supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issues directives.

"There's a split between the views of the Kabulis and Kandaharis" on how to manage Hekmatyar, his party official said.

"The Kabulis are opposed to the Taliban chief's view that he should be kept quiet."

It's not Hekmatyar's "intention to overthrow the regime", the official added. But he would like the Taliban "from Kabul to rise" and "for there to be a start from within this regime".

A spokesman for the Taliban government did not respond to a request for comment.

The Taliban government is not yet recognised by any foreign powers, some of which have been lobbying Afghan authorities to agree to a more inclusive rule.

But an official from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a rights organisation, said Hekmatyar "just wants to attract the attention of the West."

"His ideology is the same as the Taliban," the official said on condition of anonymity. "He is against democracy and women's rights".

"He is positioning himself," said the ex-diplomat.

"He believes he has a role to play... in case the government evolves.

"He's also sending a message to the international community that he's still a force to be reckoned with."

Short link: