Anand Gopal


Writer ● Journalist

Interview with Afghan Insurgent Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: Can Peace Talks Succeed?

Kabul, Afghanistan–Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran Afghan warlord, heads the only one of three main insurgent groups that is holding direct negotiations with the government. His group, Hizb-e-Islami, controls large swaths of the north and east, and in March it delivered to Kabul a 15-point peace proposal. But any deal with Hizb-e-Islami remains far off, due to disagreements over when foreign troops should leave and when to hold new elections. And it is not clear that stronger groups such as the Taliban would follow suit.

Mr. Hekmatyar, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan, discussed the peace negotiations with the Monitor in a rare e-mail interview, with high-ranking associates of his verifying his identity. Here are excerpts from the interview.

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New Counterinsurgency Strategy, Same Results

Wardak province, a rustic region of verdant dales and twisting streams that borders Kabul, is home to one of the untold stories of the Afghan war: over the last nine months, U.S. forces have quietly decapitated the Taliban’s leadership in the area. Through dozens of nighttime raids, U.S. Special Operations Forces have succeeded in killing or capturing a number of important Taliban commanders. Dozens of notorious insurgent leaders who have ruled Wardak for five or six years unmolested have suddenly been removed from the picture, marking one of the biggest setbacks the Taliban has faced on the ground in recent times.

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Afghanistan Insurgent Hekmatyar Shuns Peace Jirga But Offers Own Deal

Kabul, Afghanistan - A leading Afghan insurgent says his group is ready for a peace deal, as more than a thousand delegates gathered in Kabul Wednesday to discuss ways to quell the violence in this war-ravaged country.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-i-Islami, one of Afghanistan’s three main insurgent factions, told the Monitor in an e-mail interview that his group decided to open talks with the Afghan government after US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders mentioned the possibility of starting to withdraw troops as early as July 2011.

“They said that the chaos in Afghanistan does not have a military solution. They said they could not defeat the opposition to this regime by fighting,” Mr. Hekmatyar wrote from an undisclosed location. “Because of that, we gave a complete and logical proposal” for peace to the government.

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Qayyum Zakir: The Taliban’s Rising Mastermind

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan —In the days leading up to the launch of a major US military offensive in the Afghan town of Marjah in February, Taliban commanders in the area received a surprise visit.

It was from a charismatic man of medium build, intense eyes, and a knack for fiery oratory. In a brief meeting, he rallied the troops, discussed strategy, and disappeared into the night.

Most of the commanders present there in late January had not met him before. But in southern Afghanistan he needed no introduction. He was Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the man who some Western officials and insurgents say is now the day-to-day leader of the Taliban.

“He has tremendous power now,” says a tribal elder in the southern province of Helmand, who knows Mr. Zakir and met with him recently. “He can design military strategy and appoint or fire” Taliban shadow governors. Read the rest of this entry »

U.S. Plan to Arm Afghan Milita Founders on Tribal Rivalries

ACHIN, Afghanistan — The detritus of tribal war litters the road that leads into this quiet mountain hamlet in eastern Afghanistan. The charred bodies of vehicles and the skeletal remains of destroyed houses fill the desert that flanks the road. Most of the shops in the main bazaar are shuttered, and some residents have packed up and left.

Achin district, a home of the Shinwari tribe, is part of an ambitious countrywide U.S. push to fund tribal militias to stand against the Taliban and stabilize the violence-plagued region. A months-long feud between Shinwari clans has brought Achin to a standstill, however, threatening to undermine the effort and illustrating the difficulties in enlisting tribes to combat the insurgency.

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The Battle For Pakistan: North Waziristan

Militancy and Conflict in Pakistan Policy Paper

North Waziristan, the second-largest of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is the most important springboard for violence in Afghanistan today, much as it has been for decades. The most important militant group in the agency today is the Haqqani Network. The legendary Afghan mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani left his native Khost province and settled in North Waziristan’s capital, Miram Shah, in the mid-1970s; his son, Sirajuddin, was raised in the area.[i] Jalaluddin quickly became the most important mujahideen commander in eastern Afghanistan during the 1980s; Sirajuddin now manages the network his father built, employing it to support violence against U.S. and NATO forces. Like his father, Sirajuddin uses North Waziristan to recruit, as a safe haven, and for strategic depth. North Waziristan is well-suited for all of these purposes because of its geographic isolation, difficult terrain, and relatively stable coalition of tribal militants. Read the rest of this entry »

In Afghanistan Warzone, a Movie Theater Comes Back to Life

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan–Lashkar Gah is typical of the conservative, war-battered towns of southern Afghanistan: few women on the streets, the constant drone of helicopters overhead, concrete blast barriers everywhere.

Yet here in the provincial capital of Helmand Province, where NATO forces just waged its biggest offensives against the Taliban in nine years, one structure near the town’s center stands as a testament to more normal times. Locals are reopening the Lashkar Gah Cinema Hall, the only movie theater in all of southern Afghanistan. For years it sat damaged by numerous wars and shuttered by Islamic extremism. Its resurrection is hoped to bring a rebirth of artistic expression in this restive corner of the country.

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Marjah: Guns Quiet, the Battle for Power Now Begins

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan–Weeks after a major United States-led offensive overturned Taliban rule in the southern Afghan town of Marjah, another force continues to hold sway over the population.

“We are ruled by fear now,” says Gul Muhammad, a shopkeeper from the dust-caked market town, speaking by phone. “We don’t know who will ultimately win here, or who will end up back in power.”

Stuck between the Taliban, an untested new governor, and predatory former leaders trying to reclaim power, many of Marjah’s residents say they are afraid to cast their support in any direction.

Yet establishing a suitable local government that wins over this hesitant population is one of the biggest and most important challenges the US faces. It could determine the success of the offensive, one of the largest in the nine-year Afghanistan war and a high-profile test of the US’s “clear, hold, and build” strategy.

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The Battle for Marjah

It was late November, 2001, and the Taliban were on the run everywhere in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance had captured Kabul and much of the rest of the country; only parts of the southwest—including the province of Helmand, remained in the Taliban’s hands. In Marjah, a quiet market town near the Helmand desert, the dying Taliban were making a last stand against a local tribal commander named Abdur Rahman Jan. The battle lasted for nearly two days, and many reinforcements came from the surrounding areas. But the Taliban, beleaguered around the country and bereft of public support, soon succumbed; Jan’s force overran Marjah and the Taliban fled in disgrace.

Jan went on to become Helmand’s police chief under the new government of Hamid Karzai. His close friend Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, a strongman with deep pockets and roots in the area, became the governor. The two quickly populated the seats of local government with their friends, family members and those from their tribes. The local government revenues became part of their personal piggy bank, locals say, and they became heavily involved in the opium business. They marginalized other tribes, destroyed the poppy fields of rivals, took bribes and kickbacks for government contracts and filled the ranks of the police with hated former mujahedeen commanders. One resident of Marjah told me, “The police were the biggest criminals. We were more afraid of them than of anyone else.”

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Pakistan Arrests Senior Taliban Leaders

KABUL–Pakistan has arrested nearly half of the Afghanistan Taliban’s leadership in recent days, Pakistani officials told the Monitor Wednesday, dealing what could be a crucial blow to the insurgent movement.

In total, seven of the insurgent group’s 15-member leadership council, thought to be based in Quetta, Pakistan, including the head of military operations, have been apprehended in the past week, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Western and Pakistani media had previously reported the arrest of three of the 15, but this is the first confirmation of the wider scale of the Pakistan crackdown on the Taliban leadership, something the US has sought.

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