Meet Afghanistan's Next Bogeyman

Oct. 7, 2002 — -- In May, U.S. officials told ABCNEWS that one of their unmanned Predator airplanes in Afghanistan had found a group of men they considered a target.

The CIA Predator, armed with two Hellfire anti-tank missiles, fired at the men, striking with devastating fury. There were injuries, and according to some reports, deaths. But officials told ABCNEWS the man they wanted to kill escaped unharmed.

That attack was reminiscent of another three months earlier, when a Predator launched a Hellfire at a trio of suspected senior al Qaeda officials meeting on a hillside in the vicinity of Zhawar Kili, southwest of the capital, Kabul.

There were suspicions that Osama bin Laden might have been among the trio of men — but if he was, he is also considered to have escaped unharmed.

However, the attack in May was different in that it was not aimed at bin Laden or any of his Taliban or al Qaeda associates. The target was a man who actually fought the Taliban at one time, and has only recently been linked to al Qaeda.

Most Americans have likely never heard of him.

But one year after the United States began Operation Enduring Freedom — the campaign that eventually toppled the Taliban — he has emerged as one of Washington's most wanted.

His name is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (pronounced gool-boo-DEEN hek-mat-YAHR).

Behind the Blasts and the Assassins

Like bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Hekmatyar was once the recipient of American largesse. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he was the mujahideen commander who received the most CIA funding funneled through Pakistan.

But in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the attitude of the United States — and his former backers, the CIA — has changed.

"We view Hekmatyar as an agitator, troublemaker and self-aggrandizer whose stated goals are to disrupt the government of [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai and to promote attacks on Americans and U.S. interests," a State Department spokesperson told ABCNEWS.

Hekmatyar has in fact labeled Western troops in Afghanistan "occupation forces," and repeatedly called for a jihad in the style of the one led against the invading Soviets more than a decade ago.

Along with al Qaeda and the Taliban, Hekmatyar has been suspected of contributing to the turbulence that has regularly rocked Afghanistan since Karzai took office last year.

Last month in Kabul, a series of bomb attacks killed 26 people, and assassins made an unsuccessful attempt on Karzai's life. Shortly after the violence, Afghan police spokesman Dul Aqa told reporters, "We can't say exactly who was behind it but we know the last bombs were al Qaeda and Gulbuddin."

In April, a bomb exploded in Kandahar, near the car of Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim. Fahim was not harmed. Afghan officials told reporters at the time they suspected Hekmatyar in the attack, but did not discuss what evidence, if any, they had.

The attack took place less than a week after officials in Kabul said they arrested dozens of people linked to Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami group for an alleged plot to overthrow the government by setting off bombs throughout the capital.

Also in April, Afghans in the country's southern provinces found leaflets threatening them if they cooperated with the new government. Much of the speculation over responsibility for their distribution also centered on Hekmatyar, reported The Associated Press.

How Big a Threat?

The U.S. military is right to target Hekmatyar, experts said — but there is some dispute as to how much of an actual threat he poses to the nation.

Hekmatyar has long espoused Islamic fundamentalism and condemned the United States. He argued against the presence of foreign troops from the start of the war against the Taliban.

In a recorded statement provided to ABCNEWS' Rahimullah Yusufzai this month, Hekmatyar, a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, accused U.S.-led foreign troops of sowing ethnic discord by favoring non-Pashtuns.

But while Hekmatyar waves the banners of ethnic and religious unity, many Afghans look at his call to arms much more cynically. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hekmatyar developed an unpopular reputation for assassinating political opponents, said Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska.

Then, after the Soviets left, he became the most despised of the country's warlords when he refused to accept a power-sharing agreement and instead rained rockets down on Kabul, killing thousands of civilians.

"It is in his nature that he wants to be the top of everything," said Ahmed Raheem Yaseer, the assistant director of Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska. "He's willing to muddy everything to get himself on top."

Consequently, Hekmatyar appears to have limited support from the general populace. "He has a tarnished name," said Ibrahim Al-Marashi, a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "Definitely, he's lost all credibility, even among [Pashtuns]."

Afghans have given him a number of nicknames, experts said — among them "the Vampire," and "The Big Evil." While many of Afghanistan's warlords have had significant numbers of supporters abroad, Gouttierre said Hekmatyar's supporters were few.

What remains of Hekmatyar's power base is mostly among small groups in Afghanistan's rural areas, he said. "Ten people here, 10 people there can be very effective [in guerrilla warfare]. It was in pitched battles [requiring mass forces] that's where he fell down."

Hekmatyar reportedly has been working with remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda, but even there, his hubris is expected to get in the way, said Akbar S. Ahmed, a professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

He may find some support, but it's unlikely he could form a lasting alliance, or co-opt al Qaeda for his own, Ahmed said. He would not subordinate himself to bin Laden, Ahmed said. "Hekmatyar would not accept any other as a Muslim leader."

A Skilled, Slippery Operator

While Hekmatyar is dismissed for his personal history, he is also respected for his familiarity with the Afghan landscape — literally and figuratively.

He is as much a master of his country's dusty back roads as he is of its unstable terrain of tribal politics. "He knows the area, he knows people," said Yaseer. "He can be very effective."

Throughout his career, Hekmatyar has exercised a chameleon-like adaptability in his quest for power.

Gouttierre, who came into contact with Hekmatyar over three decades, said in a personal, one-on-one situation, Hekmatyar was a very engaging conversationalist, courteous and noncombatative — but also a duplicitous one.

"He would say he was friends with the U.S., he would say he appreciates the U.S. in one-on-one conversations … but several weeks later, [in front of crowds] he would speak a different tune."

Hekmatyar's life is full of these reversals. He came of political age as a leftist, fought the Soviets as a U.S.-backed mujahid, then allied himself with a former communist warlord against the subsequent mujahideen government.

In recent years, after the Taliban took control of the country, he managed to find refuge in neighboring Shiite Iran, despite being a fundamentalist Sunni. Tehran thought it would be able to exert influence over the country through him, experts said.

Now, it's widely believed he is hiding in the lawless areas between his traditional home province in Afghanistan's northeast, and Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, an area also suspected to be a refuge for bin Laden if he is still alive.

"I believe he is a man not so much suited to a particular philosophy as he is to himself," Gouttierre said.

Whenever he travels, Hekmatyar takes special precautions, even using doubles to fool would-be assassins. He sends out "five Gulbuddins in five cars, in different directions, and he sends people ahead of him," Yaseer said.

"He's a big threat unless he's eliminated," he said. "He's a survivor."