KABUL, Afghanistan — At a political rally attended by hundreds of people in Kabul earlier this summer, a cry went up in support of one of this country's most notorious insurgents.
"Long live Engineer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan,” shouted a member of the audience. "Long live him," chanted the crowd in reply.
With the departure of foreign combat troops here well underway, one man continues to haunt US strategy, decades after he first crossed paths with Washington.
Hekmatyar's organization, Hizb-e-Islami, claimed responsibility for a suicide attack near Kabul on Tuesday that killed at least 14 people. The group said the attack was in response to the anti-Islam film that has sparked protests around the world over the last week.
In Hakmatyar's hands lie not only the fate of NATO soldiers in some central, northern and eastern provinces, but arguably the best chance of a peace deal with a major rebel group.
Hekmatyar has been at the heart of the changing political tides in Afghanistan for more than 30 years and he and his followers are again emerging as an important force.
To his critics he is an extremist who cannot be trusted. His admirers, however, see him as a guiding light, whether they are fighting in the mountains or working with the government.
After starting out as an activist studying engineering at Kabul University, Hekmatyar fled to Pakistan in the 1970s.
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He went on to become a leader in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, heading one of the seven largest resistance factions: Hizb-e-Islami, or the “Islamic Party.”
Hekmatyar's hardline anti-communist views and his fighters' ruthless behavior meant it was the chief beneficiary of CIA funding.
Alongside him at the time was Wahidullah Sabawoon, who served as Hizb-e-Islami’s military director and general director of intelligence.
Now an advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and an ex-party member, he still has the highest regard for Hekmatyar’s work on the battlefield and as an author of dozens of books on religion and politics.
"For 40 years he has stayed with this revolution and struggle," Sabawoon said. "He is a very good writer and a very good leader. But if someone has no luck, that's a different matter."
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and Kabul's communist regime later collapsed, the various rebel factions found themselves embroiled in a brutal civil war that left tens of thousands dead.
Hekmatyar’s soldiers fired rockets from the capital's outskirts into residential neighborhoods. This period has helped sharply divide opinion about him, with much of the city still bearing scars from those days.
Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai was prime minister back then and belonged to a party that opposed Hizb-e-Islami. He described Hekmatyar as "very impatient," but said other leaders like him must share the blame for the carnage.
Rather than display any signs of lingering resentment toward his old adversary, he was full of praise for a man who has vowed to drive foreign troops from Afghanistan.
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Ahmadzai — a vocal but peaceful enemy of the occupation — said Hekmatyar is "very sincere and he's a very outspoken person. He's very well respected among the Afghans but especially among his people."
After the Taliban seized power in 1996, Hekmatyar eventually escaped to Iran. He left there in 2002 and has been resisting the US and NATO ever since, his whereabouts unknown.
Many Hizb-e-Islami members chose not to follow him into another war. But the party openly stages political rallies like the one earlier this summer, while claiming to have no association with its spiritual leader.
Those who chose to stay at his side have occasionally taken credit for prominent attacks in Kabul, including an attempt on President Karzai’s life in 2008. They are also active in a number of rural areas, conducting the kind of guerrilla operations they excelled at against the Soviets.
Some have paid the ultimate price for their loyalty. In April 2011 Hekmatyar’s nephew, reportedly a teenager, died in an air strike in Maidan Wardak province.
However, Hizb-e-Islami is believed to be behind recent village uprisings against the Taliban in some districts and the two groups have clashed frequently in the last few years.
They have always had ideological differences — the former possessing more tolerant attitudes towards schooling and supporting the principle of democratic elections.
This has inevitably caused speculation that Hekmatyar could strike a deal with the government. His representatives have often held talks with officials and there was optimism that some sort of consensus could be reached.
Mawlawi Attaullah Ludin used to be a Hizb-e-Islami commander and is now deputy of the High Peace Council, an internationally backed organization set up to negotiate with the insurgents.
In the spring he said discussions were on-going and spoke of his admiration for Hekmatyar.
“He was our teacher: he was teaching us about Islamic law and customs, he was teaching us about politics, he was teaching us about everything. So we do not have any problems with him and he is not our enemy, he is only the enemy of the Americans and the current government,” he said.
Since then the talks have broken down, apparently as a result of Washington signing a strategic agreement with Kabul. Rather than make a deal now, Hekmatyar seems intent on waiting to see what happens as NATO troops withdraw.
In a statement to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr, Hekmatyar was as strident as ever.
“This long war has left America and Europe facing a very strong financial and political crisis. They have not achieved anything and like a wounded snake they are trying to bite everything,” he said.
“Apart from the continuation of jihad, there is no other complete solution. You should be assured and confident that almighty Allah will bring you victory against the army of devils. The crusader forces will face defeat and return to their countries with their heads bowed.”