What is the Daily Telegraph doing promoting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?

Jan 2, 2013
Robert Fox

He says he supports girls' education – yet he had acid thrown at female students who dressed immodestly

WHY is the Daily Telegraph so keen to promote the cause of the hardline Afghan Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar across its front page today?

'Prince Harry is a "jackal" killing innocents, says feared Afghanistan warlord,' screams the headline above an article by Peter Oborne. What follows is based on what is described as an 'interview' with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, 65, head of his own Hezb–i–Islami movement.

Hekmatyar was briefly prime minister in Afghanistan when the country fell into civil war and anarchy in 1992. He had been a leader of one of the factions in the Mujahideen alliance against the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989.

He is credited with fighting his Mujahideen allies as much as the Russians. "Hekmatyar's party has the dubious distinction of never winning a significant battle during the war," writes Peter Bergen, an authority on Islamist terrorism, "training a variety of militant Islamists from around the world, killing significant numbers of Mujahideen from other parties, and taking a virulently anti-western line".

This didn't prevent him from grabbing $600 million of aid, and the bulk of what Saudi Arabia was offering Afghan insurgents against the Russians in the 1980s.

Today, it's a very different story. He has fallen out with his principal backers in the region, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan - where he is now hiding - and Iran who kicked him out in 2002.

In Kabul, his name is reviled by most, including his own Pashtun community, for the destruction he brought to the city when he fought his former fellow Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood, the 'Lion of the Panshir', for control of the city between 1992 and 1994. Most of the damage you can see in the capital dates from that murderous episode.

Today Hekmatyar is trying to clamber back to power in Kabul after western troops leave in 2014 by all means available, including the Daily Telegraph and Al-Jazeera. He is not part of the Taliban, and he is regarded by much of their leadership with suspicion. It is not even clear how strong his movement Hezb-i-Islami really is.

But he has triumphed with the Telegraph, whose website is running a highly edited four-minute video monologue. It is a piece of political spin to blow the socks off the masters of the art like Karl Rove or Alastair Campbell.

In fact, the exchange with Hekmatyar isn't an interview as such. Oborne submitted a list of questions, which were then conveyed by courier, and the answers came back by video clip. This is a technique favoured by dictators and autocrats like the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, ideologue of al-Qaeda and successor to Osama bin Laden.

There can be no comebacks, follow-ups or supplementaries – the essence of any good journalistic cross-examination. In short, Oborne seems prepared to give the 'feared warlord' a softer ride than he would afford any leading member of the UK cabinet or opposition.

The result is part hate-broadcast and part job application. Hekmatyar condemns the British for their activities in Afghanistan over two centuries – hence we get the line about Prince Harry: "The British prince comes to Afghanistan to kill innocent Afghans when he is drunk." He vows to give the foreign troops a kicking before they leave next year – though with whose army he doesn't specify.

He goes on to say he is in favour of free elections to decide who is to rule Afghanistan next, and, of course, he will be a more than willing partner in whatever coalition that might be. He also says he is favour of education for girls, provided they are segregated from boys.

In his own video clip, Peter Oborne, lounging on a leather settee, calls his 'interview' with Hekmatyar "refreshing." He says Hekmatyar is "talking about political engagement in a way I've never heard a Taliban figure talk about it before". In fact, Taliban leaders have been talking quite a lot about elections, possible dialogue and even opening schools deep in the poppy lands of the Sangin Valley.

It's as if the 'feared warlord' has become the new Internet chum of Oborne and the Telegraph.

The phenomenon is brilliantly and disturbingly discussed by James Carroll in his New Year's Day column in the Boston Globe where he argues that global communication means that friendships and loyalties become general and not local.

"The primal experience of place has changed. Smartphones mean that borders between 'here' and 'there' have become porous." But, he warns, "if a trans-national human commonwealth is indeed being born, it must be nurtured to protect hard-won democratic values, like minority rights."

Among friends of my generation in Kabul, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is remembered for getting his followers to throw acid over female students at Kabul University if they dressing immodestly.

His blandishments to the Telegraph about female education are not to be taken at face value. They are published on the same day as the news comes through of the murder of six female teachers and medical workers by Islamists - in the same region close to Peshawar where Hekmatyar is believed to be hiding.

This may be a slow news day at the Daily Telegraph, but it seems little excuse for giving such a gratuitous puff to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's dubious politicking.

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