June 12, 2002

A Nightmare In Kabul

Years after driving him out of the country, the people of Kabul still know him as "the Vampire". Even by the hellish standards of other Afghan warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's brutality stands out.

During the decade-long Soviet occupation, he became possibly the biggest beneficiary of the multibillion-dollar US-Pakistani program to arm the Afghan resistance - although his troops often seemed more interested in ambushing other mujahedin factions than in fighting the Russians. From the Pakistani town of Peshawar, he directed mafia-style hits against more than a dozen rival factions' leaders. His men had a reputation for tortures like igniting gunpowder on the eyeballs of captured enemies. After the Soviet-backed regime fell in 1992, he intensified his war against mujahedin rivals (many of whom would later form the Northern Alliance). At one point they made him prime minister, but he refused to share power. Instead he spent months blasting Kabul into ruins, escaping to Iran before the Taliban rolled over the rubble to power.

Now the Vampire is back, and many Afghans are terrified by the thought of what he might do next. "For Afghanistan now, Hekmatyar is more dangerous than Al Qaeda," says Fazlullah Mojaddadi, the governor of Logar province, a longtime Hekmatyar stronghold. Unlike many of Afghanistan's warlords, Hekmatyar is not expected in Kabul for this week's Loya Jirga , where about 1500 delegates will choose an interim national government. The notorious Uzbek muscleman Abdul Rashid Dostum will be there, clean shaven and wearing a spiffy new business suit instead of army fatigues, deciding Afghanistan's future with dozens of other unlikely democrats. They campaigned hard - and not often fairly - for seats in the Loya Jirga. Now international observers such as Human Rights Watch are warning that the strong-arm tactics of Hekmatyar and other warlords could sabotage the political process.

Hekmatyar will have to work his mischief from a distance. Right now he has something else to run for - his life. "He's a bad guy, and we want to remove him as a bad influence in Afghanistan," says Len Scensny, a State Department specialist in South Asian affairs. The CIA thought it had Hekmatyar in a Predator drone's cross hairs last month in the mountains of Konar province, but its Hellfire missile managed only to injure a few local farmers who were tending crops at the scene. Last week in Konar, a team of Afghan troops and US Special Forces missed him again, according to Mohammed Ismael, a provincial intelligence officer, who says members of Hekmatyar's 200-man entourage were later seen in Alingar, a town in neighboring Laghman province. "[Hekmatyar is] in worse shape than Osama bin Laden," says Ziauddin, a senior Afghan intelligence official (like many of his countrymen, he uses only one name). "He changes his location every five minutes."

Since leaving Iran in February, Hekmatyar has popped up everywhere - or so people say. Afghan intelligence tracked him from Quetta across southern Afghanistan before losing him in the tribal areas of Pakistan. A technician from Gardez even claims to have seen him in the caves of Shahikot during Operation Anaconda. No one knows exactly where he is or what he's up to. Persistent rumors say the warlord wants to join forces with Taliban fighters against their mutual enemies in the Northern Alliance and the West. Officials from the Afghan National Intelligence Service go further yet, claiming that Mullah Omar met with Hekmatyar in Quetta in February and appointed him to lead a new movement of Taliban and Qaeda members under the name Nohzat-al-Fath (Party of Victory). The group's alleged aim is to infiltrate the government and carry out terrorist attacks against foreigners in Afghanistan.

Sources in Pakistan question whether the Taliban or anyone else would team up with someone as "unreliable and unprincipled" as Hekmatyar. "Hekmatyar's time has come and gone," says a well-informed Pakistani analyst in Peshawar. "Now he's just a marginal player and can't pose a real threat to anyone." Still, someone must be paying Hekmatyar's expenses. He spent his years of Iranian exile living in genteel comfort in one of Tehran's most exclusive neighborhoods. Now he's said to be traveling around Afghanistan with several hundred armed men. Maulavi Tara Kheil, an Afghan cleric who lived with Hekmatyar in Tehran, says at least some of the money is coming from wealthy Saudi businessmen.

Few observers think Hekmatyar has enough popular support to threaten the Afghan government directly. But no one doubts that he could cause real problems. "Hekmatyar's only goal is to create a power vacuum through acts of terrorism," says Wahidullah Sabahoun, a former member of the warlord's old Hizb-i-Islami faction. Hekmatyar talked to Newsweek about the prospect of an American invasion a few days after September 11. "We'll make Afghanistan the graveyard of those who want to occupy it," he warned. The worst part is, he would feel right at home.

With Ron Moreau and Zahid Hussain in Islamabad, Colin Soloway in Washington, Maziar Bahari in Tehran and Sam Seibert

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.