KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — From American ally to U.S.-declared terrorist, and now a presidential candidate in Saturday’s polls, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s past is inextricably linked to Afghanistan’s volatile history over four decades of war.
In an interview in his sprawling compound in the Afghan capital this week, Hekmatyar, 71, warned of more violence if upcoming polls are not free and fair. He accused the front-runner and incumbent President Ashraf Ghani of abusing his power to win another term.
Speaking in his native Pashto language, Hekmatyar warned of a crisis not even U.S. intervention could easily solve if voting is mired in allegations of fraud — as it was in the last elections five years ago.
“The situation will spiral out of everyone’s control and neither the government nor the foreign forces will be able to bring a halt to it,” he told The Associated Press, without elaborating.
Just days ahead of polls, concern is growing about the transparency of the vote and increasing allegations of abuse of power directed at Ghani.
Following the 2014 elections, the United Sates stepped in and tried to cobble together a unity government, after allegations of massive fraud threatened violence and instability. Ghani was named president, while his closest rival Abdullah Abdullah was named Chief Executive in a power sharing agreement.
The international community has warned there will be no intervention this time.
While Hekmatyar seems to have little chance of winning, he does appeal to Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups. Like Ghani, he is also an ethnic Pashtun, which means he could take votes away from the incumbent’s base and force a second round of voting.
“Along with some of the other relatively minor Pashtun candidates, he (Hekmatyar) could win enough votes from his largely Pashtun base to prevent Ghani from getting over the 50% threshold needed for a first-round victory,” said Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Hekmatyar fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took power in 1996 and lived in exile in Iran until 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban. He returned to Afghanistan and rallied his forces in the mountains to fight against U.S. and NATO troops until in 2003 Washington declared him a terrorist.
“The U.S. Government has information indicating that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has participated in and supported terrorist acts committed by al-Qaida and the Taliban,” the U.S. State Department said at the time. “Because of his terrorist activity, the United States is designating Hekmatyar as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.”
In 2016 he brokered a peace agreement with Ghani in a pact that some hoped might be a blueprint for a deal with Taliban insurgents. It wasn’t.
A one-time U.S. ally, Hekmatyar received the lion’s share of American money spent on financing the 1980s Afghan war against the invading former Soviet Union. Ahmad Shah Masood, who was killed in a suicide bombing on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the terrorist attack on the United States, was also aided by Washington to fight the Soviet Army. It was one of the last Cold War battles before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The old Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Three years later, Afghanistan’s pro-communist government collapsed and the U.S.-backed mujahedeen — including Hekmatyar and Masood — took power. The mujahedeen ended up turning their guns on each other, killing at least 50,000 civilians during their four-year rule and paving the way for a Taliban takeover.
Within sight of Hekmatyar’s home, protected by 20-foot blast walls, is Kabul’s ancient Darulaman Palace, which has been rebuilt after getting pummeled by relentless rocket fire during the civil war.
In the interview, Hekmatyar said it was time to let the past go, while still blaming Masood and his allies, who are today power brokers in Kabul, for the destruction of the early 1990s.
Since embracing a peace agreement and returning to the Afghan capital, Hekmatyar seems to be avoiding any clashes with the country’s many warlords. But international and national observers say all former warlords are heavily armed, meaning violence is always a possibility.
Deeply conservative, Hekmatyar follows a radical brand of Islam that limits women’s movements and participation in society — although he said he differs from the Taliban. He said he is a full supporter of girls’ education but in keeping with Islamic tenets.
His vision for Afghanistan’s future would be a strict adherence to his interpretation of Islamic law.
In some ways, he seemed more conservative than the Taliban, who said women could be judges but not chief justice. Hekmatyar too does not want a woman as chief justice, nor can a woman judge a murder trial “because she is too kind to sentence a murderer to hang,” he said.
Neither the Taliban nor Hekmatyar would accept a woman as president.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said Hekmatyar is a reminder that violence is almost inevitable, given Afghanistan’s quagmire of armed factions.
“The big headline here is that with so many factions having armed supporters, with Afghanistan experiencing a particularly volatile political period, and with the stakes so high given the uncertainties of the U.S. troop presence and future peace talks, the danger of violence is very real, and very great,” said Kugelman. “And that’s the case whether or not Hekmatyar is on the scene.”