Insurgent-led Afghan party raises fears of unsavory leaders claiming power by ballot box

By Kathy Gannon, AP
Monday, September 20, 2010

Afghan warlords hedge bets, contest elections

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Dozens of candidates in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections represent a party linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister with ties to al-Qaida who is believed to be a mastermind of attacks on U.S. troops.

Hekmatyar, thought to be in Pakistan, is the most feared and notorious of various warlords who supported candidates in last Saturday’s balloting. Observers allege they engaged in widespread intimidation and vote-buying.

While analysts say it’s important to give such groups a way into the mainstream, they suspect warlords like Hekmatyar will use parliament seats to consolidate control over certain regions — setting the stage for more violence and possibly even civil war when international forces eventually depart.

A successful showing by warlord-backed candidates could also stymie attempts to root out corruption and find a consensus for talks with the armed opposition, both of which are necessary to pave the way for a U.S. withdrawal.

Nader Nadery, whose Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan sent thousands of Afghans throughout the country to monitor the vote, told The Associated Press “it is always good to have those who have been involved in violence enter into the political process.”

But an impotent vetting process has let in candidates with blood on their hands and “who still have links to those armed groups,” he said, including warlords allied to Hekmatyar and others who fought bitterly against him.

Their bloody four-year civil war killed an estimated 50,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the Red Cross, and destroyed giant swaths of Kabul. It ended in 1996 when the Taliban took power.

In Hekmatyar’s battlefield history spanning nearly four decades, he has been an on-again, off-again ally of the United States. He was a key beneficiary of the U.S. in the 1980s during the fight against invading Russian soldiers. Osama bin Laden also came to prominence during that war, also with funding from Washington, funneled by Pakistan’s intelligence service.

Hekmatyar fled to Iran for five years when the Taliban took power, but after the Taliban’s defeat, he returned — some say to Pakistan — to wage a war to oust foreign troops from Afghanistan.

From their mountain hideouts, Hekmatyar’s men lay bombs, plant improvised explosive devices and shoot at Afghan and NATO soldiers.

But Hekmatyar’s men have also been fighting Taliban militants in recent months in eastern Nangarhar province, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was said to despise him.

Earlier this year, representatives from Hezb-i-Islami held direct talks with President Hamid Karzai, who has been seeking ways to forge peace with his militant enemies as the Taliban-led insurgency enters its ninth year.

Full preliminary results of the elections, in which 2,500 candidates sought 249 seats, are not expected until next month, so it’s too early to tell whether candidates from the Hekmatyar-linked Hezb-i-Islami party will be among the winners.

Hezb-i-Islami candidates, while renouncing violence, generally do not disavow their links to Hekmatyar. Most party members consider Hekmatyar their leader, if not officially, then in spirit.

Party candidate Fazil Mawla Laton said the only reason Hekmatyar isn’t the head of their officially registered party is “because he is out of the country. But we would hope that one day he will come back and he will be the leader.”

Abdul Ghafur, another Hezb-i-Islami candidate, said the party is headed by Hekmatyar’s former deputy, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the economic minister in Karzai’s government. He is considered one of Hekmatyar’s closest allies, although he too has publicly distanced himself from the Hezb-i-Islami founder.

Ghafur once fought alongside Hekmatyar, and this month four workers from his headquarters in the Nangarhar provincial capital of Jalalabad were arrested by U.S. special forces for alleged involvement in a roadside bombing. One is still in custody, according to provincial officials.

“There’s always the question of how and whether the legal and insurgent wings have links, and then there is the Afghan assertion always that there is no such thing as an ex-Hezb-i-Islami — once in, you are ideologically changed for life,” said Kate Clarke, Afghan-based senior analyst for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent policy research organization.

“Hezb, in general, are everywhere, always,” she said.

Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, called the parliamentary elections “an important chance” for groups like Hezb-e-Islami to exert political influence.

Juan Zarate, a senior counterterrorism official in the administration of President George W. Bush, said he didn’t expect a political insurgency by Hekmatyar but that elections could provide a means of gaining local power.

“Those with connections to him — past or present — are likely trying to take advantage of opportunities they see for power locally,” Zarate said.

Laton, who ran from Nangarhar province, said most of the dozens of Hezb-i-Islami candidates had waged “jihad” with Hekmatyar before the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. Laton joined Hekmatyar after graduating from Kabul University, and has worked for the party’s information wing.

The party’s widespread involvement in the election campaign underscored a growing sense of dread among Afghans about what their country will look like when Western military commitment ends. Afghan security officials say privately that they worry that the creeping political influence of insurgent groups like Hekmatyar’s will leave them vulnerable to retribution attacks.

“The leaders are not honest with the people. They just want power, and when the foreigners leave they will leave the parliament and start fighting each other,” said Rahimullah, a 27-year-old mechanic in the Afghan capital.

Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, former anti-terrorism chief, warned that Afghanistan would descend into chaos and civil war if the U.S. and NATO move quickly to leave Afghanistan.

“We know if the foreign forces leave today, of course, there will be a civil war again,” he said, arguing for another five years of international troop deployment to allow time for the Afghan National Army and police to develop into a capable fighting force.

Nangarhar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai rejected reconciliation with either Hekmatyar or the Taliban. He said both are enemies of the country and blasted the notion of having former Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami members in parliament.

“They are there just to take benefit for themselves,” he said in an interview Saturday with the AP.

Rahimullah, the mechanic, feared a return to Afghanistan’s decades of warfare.

“I really feel that civil war will start when the foreigners leave Afghanistan,” he said.

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