Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has long been a key figure in the treacherous complexities of Afghan politics. During the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he was one of the most powerful, ruthless and rigidly conservative of the country's warlords. Named prime minister three years after the Soviet withdrawal, he and his party, Hizb-i Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Party of Afghanistan,) later destroyed most of Kabul in missile attacks because he disagreed with the inclusion of other groups in the Afghan government.
Once a major recipient of American and Pakistani aid, Hekmatyar began denouncing the United States after the mujahedin came to power in Afghanistan in 1992. During the war, many Afghans blamed him for weakening the mujahedin coalition by repeatedly shifting his alliances with different factions. After the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, he fled to Iran in spite of Tehran's opposition to his party. Nonetheless, the 61-year-old engineer-who started his political activities in the 1970s by assassinating several officials from the government of Zahir Shah, the Afghan king ousted in 1973-remains a potential powerbroker who is still said to be pursuing his lifelong dream of leading Afghanistan. These days, his three-story house in an upscale north Tehran neighborhood attracts a variety of diplomats and foreign delegations who come because they believe he will continue to play a role in the political future of his country.
He spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Maziar Bahari at his home recently. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What do you think about the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States? Who do you think was behind them and why?
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: I really think the FBI should answer this question. They haven't come up with any evidence about the real culprits. The Americans say that this group of young Arabs did it ... [but] that these young people were learning how to fly small airplanes doesn't prove anything. No reasonable person can believe that these individuals were able to perform such a massive operation with this precision. If the Americans know for sure that [Osama] bin Laden was behind the attacks they should bring forward the evidence, and then a decision should be made within the framework of the United Nations ... What [the Americans] really want to do is to get rid of the Taliban and install another puppet regime in their place.
Who do you think were the real perpetrators of the attacks?
I think it's done by a group of people like [Oklahoma City bomber Timothy] McVeigh. There was not only one McVeigh in America. Also there's a possibility that antiglobalization groups were behind the attacks.
So you don't think that Osama bin Laden could have done it?
I think if he were involved he would say so. He doesn't have the organization or the wealth for an operation this size.
How well do you know bin Laden? Have you ever met him?
I met him a long time ago during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was interested in the jihad against the Russians, so he took part in the battles with other fighters. He eventually created his own group by the end of the war. But he wasn't part of a specific group or party. He became more active during the Persian Gulf War and the start of an increasing presence of American forces in his mother country, Saudi Arabia. But even then he wasn't against the Saudi government. He was just against the presence of Americans there. But the Saudi government didn't accept his viewpoints, and he had to flee to Sudan. After a while he came under pressure from the Sudanese to leave the country, so he went back to Afghanistan. He went to Jalalabad before the Taliban took it over, and he stayed with the Taliban. After a while, one faction of the Taliban wanted to hand him over to the Saudis but the other faction resisted. So the Taliban council of clerics had to hold a session to decide his fate. At that time Turki al-Faisal, the then Saudi minister of intelligence, came to Kandahar to take bin Laden back to Saudi Arabia. But the clerics decided not to hand him over.
The Taliban is not a monolithic group. This is about the infighting between the Taliban. So I don't know. Maybe because he is one of their fighters.
And also one of their financiers?
No. He doesn't have much money. They have confiscated all he had, and all this talk about $300 million, $2 billion or $5 billion is not accurate. He is not wealthy at all. They exaggerate his power. For example, even Al Qaeda is not such an organized group as the Americans say ... Everything about his power and character is blown out of proportion.
Why do you think the Taliban was able to take over Afghanistan in such a short time?
The help they received from four foreign countries: the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates-but mainly the United States. I think the Americans now regret their mistake. Spending so much time and money in order to create a group which eventually turned against them even was criticized by the Congress and the State Department. Americans helped the Pakistanis to create this group. The Taliban were created during Benazir Bhutto's government, and her minister of the Interior, Gen. Nasirollah Babor, was the main architect of the Taliban. He later proudly said that "we created the Taliban in 1993." Everyone knows that General Babor has very close ties with the U.S. and the U.K.
Why do you think the Pakistanis created the Taliban?
I think Afghanistan has regained its strategic importance for the Americans. Especially in regards to oil and gas resources of the Central Asian republics [Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan]. The United States need to control Afghanistan so they can have the pipelines in our country and control the resources in Central Asia. They need Afghanistan as a base to be close to the republics.
So you think all these accusations are just an excuse to invade Afghanistan?
Just an excuse. It's impossible to have all these military actions to arrest one man. All these new recruitment of soldiers, modern artillery and gunships could not be only for one man. There must be a bigger plot. We believe that all the misery that the Afghans have suffered since the Soviet troops pulled out is because of the U.S. They forced the Taliban upon our people and have caused such devastation and now they want to create another catastrophe.
You were rumored to have close ties with the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, and the CIA during the war in Afghanistan. You are also said to have promised that until the recently assassinated anti-Taliban rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was in the government as the minister of defense you would not join it.
It was just a lie which was spread by the BBC and the Americans. Americans and the Pakistanis helped us during our resistance because the Pakistanis feared that after Afghanistan, Pakistan will be next and the Soviets can reach the Indian Ocean-which the Russians always have dreamt of. And the Americans after Vietnam were so afraid of any direct intervention that they used all their resources to help us in our fight. But I remained independent. Even when I visited America I didn't meet with President Reagan because I didn't want our resistance to be portrayed as a fight between Russians and Americans.
How was your relationship with Massoud before his assassination?
Normal. He was part of the Northern Alliance, and I am not. There was no animosity between us.
Who do you think were the perpetrators of Massoud's assassination? And do you think it's just a coincidence that he was assassinated just a few days before the attacks in the United States?
It was a coincidence. The first person blew himself up and killed Massoud at the same time. But the second person was being arrested when they shot him down. You should ask: Why? Why didn't they arrest him and make him give the full details of their plot. He could have provided the full details of the plan and their masters.
So you're saying that a group within the Northern Alliance was behind the assassination?
Most probably. Because the assassins came from Europe and they stayed with the late Massoud and his group for a while. They couldn't have brought the bombs from Europe. Someone from that area must have supplied the bomb.
Why did you decide to live in Iran?
I think it's a good choice. Iran is a neighbor of my country, and I think it's a good place to live. So I came to live here a few months after the Taliban took over Kabul.
Do you have any problems with the Iranian government?
No. Iran supports the Northern Alliance, and although I'm not part of the alliance they accepted me as a guest of their country.
What do you think about Iran's policies vis-a-vis Afghanistan?
I don't think it's a good occasion to talk about it now.
Just for the record?
I think Iran could have pursued a better policy. They shouldn't have supported one group or alliance. I think they could support many other groups and parties who are fighting in Afghanistan. I also think Iranians should have an independent policy regarding Afghanistan and [should] not coordinate their policies with Moscow and Delhi. I think the Russians are still interested to continue the war in Afghanistan rather than having peace and central government in the country.
Did some members of your party join the Taliban?
We asked our forces to remain in the country. We didn't want to create another war front in our country. Because you cannot continue fighting without an outside help. And most foreign powers pursue their own interests in the country, so we asked our fighters to remain in the country. They remained in their native regions. Some of them eventually joined the Taliban and some the Northern Alliance.
Did they join them or act as your infiltrators?
It depends on the specific situation in each region. For example, many of our forces are in the front line of fighting the Taliban shoulder to shoulder with the Northern Alliance. But the Islamic Party of Afghanistan is in a waiting period right now.
What will you do if the Americans attack Afghanistan?
We have to defend our country and join our people.
Do you mean you will join the Taliban?
We are not going to join them, but we will defend our country. I think after the attack you will witness new alliances being formed. I think some members of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban who want to cooperate with the Americans would separate from them. There will be new alliances. We will not wage war against the Americans but we will defend our country.
Will you return to Afghanistan?
It depends how they will attack. Whether it's going to be only air attacks or have ground troops as well.
How do you think they will attack?
I think they will start with missile attacks for a long time and then they will send ground troops to occupy Kabul and Kandahar and install a puppet regime. Pakistanis have promised the Americans their full cooperation and President Bush has thanked them. [Pakistan President] Gen. Pervez Musharraf says that only a small percentage of Pakistanis are against his policies. But as we see in the [anti-American] demonstrations in Pakistan-which will surely increase in the near future-I think Musharraf will have a lot of problems, because according to a new survey more than 60 percent of the Pakistanis do not support him.
I noticed one diplomatic group from Turkey visiting your home to discuss the present situation with you. Have you been approached by other countries?
I've been approached by many sides and countries at different levels, including Americans who want us to support their attack and support [exiled former Afghan monarch] Zahir Shah. The answer was: no. We will never support their attacks. I was imprisoned by Zahir Shah when he was king. I started my political activities against the king. I may accept any other Afghan government but not the king's. Especially if he comes riding in on an American tank. I also believe that the Americans should learn from the defeat of the British and the Russians in my country and do not try to repeat the same mistake. We'll make Afghanistan the graveyard of those who want to occupy it.