May Issue 2003
On the evening of April 19, hundreds of leaders and comrades of the radical Islamic party, Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan, congregated in the backyard of the Jamia Masjid, located in the vicinity of the sprawling Shamshatoo refugee camp outside Peshawar.
Leaders travelled from far-flung areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas to attend the party’s convention to pledge their loyalty to Hizb chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — the most wanted man in the United States war on terror after Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman-ul Zawahiri and the ousted, elusive one-eyed spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar.
“We are here to remain united under the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and vow to oust the Americans from our motherland, Afghanistan,” declared Hizb veteran and prominent leader, Maulvi Ghulam Ullah Rehamti, as the participants chanted slogans calling for jihad against the Americans.
Hekmatyar’s deputy, Peshawar-based Qari Uddin Hilal, along with party leader, Ali Ansari, and the head of the party’s military wing, Khalid Farooqui, sat on the stage, in what was the Hizb’s first large gathering where these leaders had appeared since September 11.
The Hizb’s ideological friends — members of Pakistan’s religious alliance of Islamic parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) — from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) also attended the convention. Senator Ibrahim, MNA Sabir Awan, and NWFP senior minister, Siraj-ul Haq, all of whom belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of Hekmatyar’s during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation, were all there to demonstrate their solidarity with the Hizb.
The Hizb’s party leaders had also extended invitations for the convention to “trusted” journalists — a brazen gesture inviting publicity about an event that one would have expected to be conducted in relative secrecy since the party is virtually banned in the country.
After the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, Hekmatyar, the darling of America’s CIA and Pakistan’s ISI during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, went into exile and what seemed to be virtual oblivion in Iran, leaving his party in disarray.
Last year, however, Hekmatyar resurfaced and decided to return to Afghanistan to “throw out the occupying US forces.” Since then his party leaders have been trying to reorganise the Hizb.
Believed to have joined hands with Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements, Hekmatyar has become one of America’s chief nemeses. He is accused of carrying out the recent attacks against US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.
Hekmatyar is also looking to consolidate his support base. According to observers, the party convention was an attempt to bring back party members, many of whom had gone underground when the Pakistani authorities launched their crackdown on Islamic extremists, by giving a call for a new jihad.
One of those who responded to Hekmatyar’s call was a former Hizb leader, Sanaullah, who came from Laghman to attend the convention. “We are trying to regroup into a force like we were during the Afghan jihad,” he said. “In Afghanistan, leaders from the Hizb-e-Islami, Taliban and Al-Qaeda have developed an understanding and reached a consensus about waging an organised jihad against the Americans,” Sanaullah added.
A source in the Hizb disclosed that the party has been secretly recruiting young men from Pakistan’s tribal areas and Paktia and Khost in Aghanistan. In the tribal areas they are using Pakistani religious leaders as their contacts. “However, we are only recruiting the sons and relatives of our old comrades from the first Afghan jihad, because now we are very cautious. We cannot trust unknowns,”he maintained, adding, “Up till now we have only conducted guerilla attacks on American bases and their partners in crime, Afghan army men. But the three of us (Hizb, Taliban and Al-Qaeda) are united, and hope that a full-fledged and organised jihad will soon begin.”
That they are getting organised is evidenced by leaflets calling for jihad against American and Karzai’s forces, signed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar, which have been distributed in the border towns and refugee camps in Pakistan’s NWFP. And since America launched its war against Iraq, there has been an upsurge of activity by Taliban fighters who presumably believe that America’s attention will now be diverted from Afghanistan.
The Americans and Afghan authorities are cognisant of the growing resistance. For months, Afghan and US intelligence officials have warned of a regrouping of Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces on both sides of the porous Afghan-Pakistan border and a nexus between them and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami leaders.
“A dangerous triangle, made up of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Hizb-e-Islami is evolving, and at the top of this triangle is Hekmatyar,” said an Afghan official at Spin Boldak, a town on the Afghan side of the Pak-Afghan border. “We need to stop them from developing into an organised force, otherwise they can create massive problems for us.”
The Hizb’s strength is greatest in the Afghan provinces of Kunnar, Nangharhar, Laghman, Logar, Paktia, and Khost. The Taliban’s strongholds are Kandahar, Helmand, Zabol, Wardak and Uruzgan.
After the ouster of the Taliban government, hundreds of Taliban leaders and fighters along with Al-Qaeda’s Arab operatives fled to Pakistan and took shelter in the tribal areas and hilly terrain of Balochistan and the NWFP, and in refugee camps and madrassahs. Many of them may now be planning to head back to Afghanistan either for the longer term or to conduct sorties there and return to Pakistan.
Last month two US special soldiers were killed and another wounded in an ambush in southern Afghanistan by suspected Taliban activists. Suspected Taliban elements also killed four foreigners, including a Red Cross worker, within the month. And more recently, two American soldiers were killed in a clash near a US position at Shkin in Paktia province, near the border with Pakistan. Several Afghan troops have also been killed. That the ante has been upped again on both sides can be gauged by the fact that more than 150 Taliban warriors have either been captured or killed in incidents that have involved heavy bombing and armoured and artillery strikes.
The increasing tension does not augur well for President Hamid Karzai and his fragile government. During his recent two-day visit to Pakistan, Mr. Karzai reportedly presented the Pakistan government a list of four of the most wanted Taliban “terrorists,” who, his aides maintained, are hiding out in Pakistan. Karzai requested Islamabad to hand the men over to Kabul, causing an uproar in Pakistan’s corridors of power (see box).
Many Afghans living in Pakistan blame Karzai and the US forces for allowing Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami and Al-Qaeda elements to regroup because of their failure in establishing the writ of law and bringing peace in Afghanistan.
Sultan Mehmood, the editor of the Peshawar-based Shahadat — considered a pro-Hizb-e-Islami newspaper — maintained there is substantial anger among Afghans and Afghan refugees. “If the government had left the Taliban and their supporters alone, they would have shaved off their beards and settled down to enjoy the peace,” said Mehmood. “But the Americans are entering their homes, capturing their brothers, humiliating their sisters, and accusing everyone of being a member of the Taliban, an enemy. So by their own actions they are forcing the Taliban to regroup. For every one opponent America and Karazai had before, now they have two or three.”
Taliban and Hizb leaders like Sanaullah are cashing in on these sentiments which are increasingly beginning to prevail among Afghan Pushtoons based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are also exploiting Pushtoon nationalist sentiment. The Afghan Pushtoons are angry because they feel Karzai is too dependent on the minority ethnic community of the Tajiks, and that Afghanistan is now virtually being ruled by their representatives, the Northern Alliance, along with US forces.
“There is a consensus in Afghanistan that the job of the foreign forces is finished, and the Northern Alliance should not rule Afghanistan any longer,” contended Sanaullah. “We do not need military training from the Americans. Even eight and 10-year-old boys in Afghanistan know how to use Kalashnikovs.” More ominously he added, “We have weapons and the Al-Qaeda’s suicide squads are still around. They are like walking bombs. They, in fact, are the biggest weapons against the Americans in Afghanistan.” Sanaullah did, however concede that the jihad would not be easy. “We do have difficulties — the biggest hurdle is to counter the bombs from the B-52s that leave us helpless. That is why we are targeting US bases or ambushing their convoys.”