Radical Afghan group undercuts resistance efforts
Peshawar, Pakistan — An Afghan guerrilla group that until recently received a major share of aid from the United States and other countries seems to be undermining, rather than helping, the resistance. International aid workers and Western diplomats are increasingly critical of the group. It has reportedly hijacked aid destined for other Afghan guerrillas and civilians, kidnapped relief workers, and is suspected by some of murdering a French aid worker and a British journalist. The US and Pakistan have in recent months reduced their backing of the group.
Hezb-e-Islami (Party of Islam), a radical fundamentalist group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has repeatedly attacked members of other factions, notably its arch rival Jamiat-e-Islami (Islamic Society). Often, they have pulled out of coordinated resistance operations against Soviet or Afghan government targets at the last minute, leaving flanks dangerously exposed. This has led to suspicion among Afghans that Mr. Hekmatyar is saving his forces for a battle against other Afghan groups - if and when the Soviets leave. Hekmatyar and his supporters deny such allegations.
Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami (another more moderate splinter bears the same name) is reputedly the largest and most radical of four fundamentalists parties in the seven-party political resistance alliance. But many observers believe Hekmatyar has been losing ground in the past two or three years, including defections by commanders unhappy with the party's actions. Hekmatyar has been known to have close ties with Libya and Iran, but some Western sources say he has reduced them in recent years. In the past, he has repeatedly castigated the US for its ``imperialism.''
One West European relief coordinator describes Hekmatyar's Hezb as ``an Islamic party with the same Stalinist intolerance and rigidity'' of the Soviet-backed communist government party in Kabul.
In addition, encouraged by Arab Wahhabi Muslim extremists, who provide substantial support, Hezb and another fundamentalist group, the Ittihad-e-Islami led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, are pushing to restrict the movements of foreign relief personnel and Western journalists inside Afghanistan. Fundamentalist extremists want to get rid of any Westernizing influences in what they think should be a purely Islamic ``jihad'' (holy war) against the Soviets.
This tendency is causing increasing concern among international relief workers - particularly since Hezb until recently reportedly received more than a third of the aid supplied by the United States ($715 million in 1987), Saudi Arabia, and other countries. (The aid is distributed by the Pakistanis.)
``By supporting the fundamentalists, we are artificially giving them an influence which they should not command,'' said Dr. Bernard Kouchner of the Paris-based M'ed'ecins du Monde recently. Only in the past few months, have Pakistan and the US reduced their backing for Hezb.
Recently returned observers say Hezb has stepped up its efforts to strengthen its position in Afghanistan's northern provinces to the detriment of other resistance fronts. This appears to be playing directly into the hands of the Soviets, whose counterinsurgency strategy aims to divide the resistance.
In November, some 300 Hezb fighters in the northern Nuristan region held up at machine-gun point half a dozen guerrilla convoys coming from Pakistan. The convoys, the last through before the winter snows, were bringing weapons, ammunition, and humanitarian supplies to the northern provinces. The Hezb forced the men to continue without their supplies or guns.
Particularly worrying for foreign relief organizations is Hezb's involvement in the hijacking of aid caravans to Afghan civilians. In early October, Hezb forces and a Wahhabi-backed group ambushed a French convoy of 96 horses near Jurm in northern Afghanistan.
According to relief sources, the guerrillas kidnapped seven doctors of the Paris-based M'edecins Sans Fronti`eres (``doctors without borders''), three French aid workers, and two Afghan translators. They also took a year's supply of medicine - 3 tons - destined for two clandestine hospitals in areas controlled by the Jamiat-e-Islami. The hijackers then met with a government militia group to decide whether to hand the French over to the Kabul authorities.
``Fortunately, the Hezb commander decided it wouldn't be good for public relations and decided not to,'' says a French relief representative in Peshawar. The French have since been released and their organizations are negotiating for the return of the horses and supplies.
Hezb is also implicated in the death last year of Thierry Niquet, a French relief worker in northern Afghanistan. Niquet's colleagues believe he was robbed and murdered by a Hezb commander near Mazar-i-Sharif, and not killed in a Soviet ambush as Hezb officials said. Despite Hezb claims that two US journalists killed in Afghanistan in October had died in a Soviet ambush, recent reports now suggest they may have been caught up in a clash between Hezb and rival mujahideen (guerrillas).
In more recent days, journalists and international relief sources have come to believe that British cameraman Andy Skrzpkowjak - who disappeared while in Afghanistan in early October - was murdered by Hezb guerrillas at Kantiwar. The arrest of four Hezbis in Maidan, Pakistan, with a lot of money on them, and reports of a very expensive camera being on the market in the border town of Chitral have led to this belief.