After escaping from prison in Afghanistan in 1973, he moved to Pakistan. When the Soviet occupation began in 1979, the CIA began funding his rapidly growing Hezb-e Islami mujahideen organization through the Pakistani ISI. Following the ouster of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah in 1992, Hekmatyar and other warlords began a civil war, which led to the deaths of around 50,000 civilians in Kabul alone. In the meantime, Hekmatyar was promoted to becoming Prime Minister of Afghanistan from 1993 to 1994 and again briefly in 1996, before the Taliban takeover of Kabul forced him to flee to Iran's capital Tehran. Sometime after the Taliban's fall in 2001 he went to Pakistan, leading his party militia to a new armed campaign against Hamid Karzai's government and the international coalition in Afghanistan. In 2016, he signed a peace deal with the Afghan government, allowing his return to Afghanistan after almost 20 years in exile.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was born in 1947 in Imam Sahib District of the Kunduz province, northern Afghanistan, a member of the Kharoti tribe of the Ghilji Pashtun. His father, Ghulam Qader, who migrated to Kunduz, is originally from the center of Ghazni province. Afghan businessman and Kharoti tribal leader Gholam Serwar Nasher deemed Hekmatyar to be a bright young man and sent him to the Mahtab Qala military academy in 1968, but he was expelled due to his political views two years later. From 1970 to 1972, Hekmatyar attended Kabul University's engineering department. Though he did not complete his degree, his followers still wrongly address him as "Engineer Hekmatyar".
Within this moment of his life, Hekmatyar was affiliated with the rather influential People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). In 1972 he was arrested for the murder of a rival Maoist student, Saydal Sokhandan, at Kabul University, but was released as part of an amnesty. He was released when the monarchy of Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin and prime minister Daoud Khan in 1973. After being released, Hekmatyar joined the Sazman-i Jawanan-i Musulman ("Organization of Muslim Youth") which was gaining influence because of its opposition to the Soviet influence in Afghanistan increasing through the PDPA elements in Daoud's government. Hekmatyar's radicalism put him in confrontation with elements in the Muslim Youth surrounding Ahmad Shah Massoud, also an engineering student at Kabul University. In 1975, trying to murder a rival for the second time in three years, Hekmatyar with Pakistani help tried to assassinate Massoud, then 22 years old, but failed. In 1975, the "Islamic Society" split between supporters of Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led the Jamiat-e Islami, and elements surrounding Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who then founded the Hezb-i Islami. Akbarzadeh and Yasmeen describe Hekmatyar's approach as "radical" and antagonistic as opposed to an "inclusive" and "moderate" strategy by Rabbani.
The arrival of Afghan opposition militants in Peshawar coincided with a period of diplomatic tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan, due to Daoud's revival of the Pashtunistan issue. Under the secret policy of the United States and Britain, and the patronage of Pakistani General Naseerullah Babar, then governor of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and with the blessing of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, camps were set up to train Hekmatyar and other anti-Daoud Islamists. The Islamist movement had two main tendencies: the Jamiat-e islami ("Islamic society") led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, that advocated a gradualist strategy to gain power, through infiltration of society and the state apparatus. Rabbani advocated for the "building of a widely based movement that would create popular support". The other movement, called Hezb-i Islami ("Islamic Party"), was led by Hekmatyar, who favored a radical approach in the form of violent armed conflict. Pakistani support largely went to Hekmatyar's group, who, in October 1975, undertook to instigate an uprising against the government. Without popular support, the rebellion ended in complete failure, and hundreds of militants were arrested.
Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami was formed as an elitist avant-garde based on a strictly disciplined Islamist ideology within a homogeneous organization that Olivier Roy described as "Leninist", and employed the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. It had its operational base in the Nasir Bagh, Worsak and Shamshatoo refugee camps in Pakistan. In these camps, Hezb-i Islami formed a social and political network and operated everything from schools to prisons, with the support of the Pakistani government and their Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). From 1976–1977 Afghan President Daoud made overtures to Pakistan which led to reconciliation with Pakistani leader Bhutto. Bhutto's support to Hekmatyar, however, continued and when Bhutto was removed from power in Pakistan by Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, Zia continued supporting Hekmatyar.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar received large amounts of aid from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States. Hekmatyar also gained the support of the British MI6 and even met Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street. According to the ISI, their decision to allocate the highest percentage of covert aid to Hekmatyar was based on his record as an effective anti-Soviet military commander in Afghanistan. Others describe his position as the result of having "almost no grassroots support and no military base inside Afghanistan", and thus being the much more "dependent on Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq's protection and financial largesse" than other mujahideen factions. Author Peter Bergen states that "by the most conservative estimates, $600 million" in American aid through Pakistan "went to the Hizb party, ... Hekmatyar's party had the dubious distinction of never winning a significant battle during the war, 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. In addition to hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid, Hekmatyar also received the lion's share of aid from the Saudis." Hekmatyar's constant scheming against all of the mujahideen factions led Pakistani general and leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to warn Hekmatyar that it was Pakistan that made him an Afghan leader and that Pakistan could and would destroy him if he resisted operational control by ISI.
Hekmatyar has been harshly criticized for his behavior during the Soviet war and the civil war, and was criticized for his group's "xenophobic" tendencies. At various times, he both fought against and allied himself with almost every other group in Afghanistan. He ordered frequent attacks on other rival factions to weaken them in order to improve his position in the post-Soviet power vacuum. An example of his tendency for internecine rivalry was his arranging the arrest of Ahmad Shah Massoud in Pakistan in 1976 on spying charges. Another example is when Massoud and Hekmatyar agreed to stage a takeover operation in the Panjshir valley—Hekmatyar at the last minute refused to engage his part of the offensive, leaving Massoud open and vulnerable. Massoud's forces barely escaped with their lives. In 1987, members of Hekmatyar's faction murdered British cameraman Andy Skrzypkowiak, who was carrying footage of Massoud's successes to the West. Despite protests from British representatives, Hekmatyar did not punish the culprits, and instead rewarded them with gifts. Another example of the Hezb-i Islami's tendency to internecine fighting was given on 9 July 1989, when Sayyed Jamal, one of Hekmatyar's commanders, ambushed and murdered 30 commanders of Massoud's Shura-ye-Nazar at Farkhar in Takhar province. The attack was typical of Hekmatyar's strategy of trying to cripple rival factions, and incurred widespread condemnation among the mujahideen.
Another possible instance of Hekmatyar's treachery toward his rivals occurred in 1987. The Paris-based group Médecins Sans Frontières reported that Hekmatyar's guerrillas hijacked a 96-horse caravan bringing aid into northern Afghanistan in 1987, stealing a year's supply of medicine and cash that was to be distributed to villagers. This would have allowed the villagers to buy food. French relief officials also asserted that Thierry Niquet, an aid coordinator bringing cash to Afghan villagers, was killed by one of Hekmatyar's commanders in 1986. It is thought that two American journalists traveling with Hekmatyar in 1987, Lee Shapiro and Jim Lindalos, were killed not by the Soviets, as Hekmatyar's men claimed, but during a firefight initiated by Hekmatyar's forces against another mujahideen group. In addition, there were frequent reports throughout the war of Hekmatyar's commanders negotiating and dealing with pro-Communist local militias in northern Afghanistan.
Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, accused the CIA of supporting Hekmatyar through the drug trade, basically providing him immunity in exchange for his assistance in the fight against the USSR.
In April 1992, as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan began to collapse, government officials joined the mujahideen, choosing different parties according to their ethnic and political affinities. For the most part, the members of the khalq faction of the PDPA, who were predominantly Pashtuns, joined with Hekmatyar. With their help, he began on 24 April to infiltrate troops into Kabul, and announced that he had seized the city, and that should any other leaders try to fly into Kabul, he would shoot their plane down. The new leader of the "Islamic Interim Government of Afghanistan", Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, appointed Ahmad Shah Massoud as defense minister, and urged him to take action. This he did, taking the offensive on 25 April, and after two days heavy fighting, the Hezb-i Islami and its allies were expelled from Kabul. A peace agreement was signed with Massoud on 25 May 1992, which made Hekmatyar Prime Minister. However, the agreement fell apart when he was blamed for a rocket attack on President Mojaddedi's plane. The following day, fighting resumed between Burhanuddin Rabbani's and Ahmed Shah Massoud's Jamiat, Abdul Rashid Dostum's Jumbish forces and Hekmatyar's Hezb-i Islami forces.
A highly controversial commander, Hekmatyar has been dubbed the "Butcher of Kabul", accused of being responsible for the destruction and civilian deaths Kabul experienced in the early 1990s. He has also been accused of spending "more time fighting other Mujahideen than killing Soviets." From 1992 to 1996, the warring factions destroyed most of Kabul and killed thousands of people, most of them civilians, during the Afghan civil war. All the different parties participated in the destruction, but Hekmatyar's group was responsible for most of the damage, because of his practice of deliberately targeting civilian areas. Hekmatyar is thought to have bombarded Kabul in retaliation for what he considered its inhabitants' collaboration with the Soviets, and out of religious conviction. He once told a New York Times journalist that Afghanistan "already had one and a half million martyrs. We are ready to offer as many to establish a true Islamic Republic." His attacks also had a political objective: to undermine the Rabbani government by proving that Rabbani and Massoud were unable to protect the population. In 1994 Hekmatyar would shift alliances, joining with Dostum as well as Hizb-e-Wahdat, a Hazara Shi'a party, to form the Shura-i Hamahangi ("Council of coordination"). Together they laid Siege of Kabul, unleashing massive barrages of artillery and rockets that led to the evacuation of U.N. personnel from Kabul, and caused several government members to abandon their posts. However the new alliance did not spell victory for Hekmatyar, and in June 1994, Massoud had driven Dostum's troops from the capital.
The Pakistani military had supported Hekmatyar until then in the hope of installing a Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul, which would be friendly to their interests. By 1994, it had become clear that Hekmatyar would never achieve this, and that his extremism had antagonised most Pashtuns, so the Pakistanis began turning towards the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. After capturing Kandahar in November 1994, the Taliban made rapid progress towards Kabul, making inroads into Hezb-i Islami positions. They captured Wardak on 2 February 1995, and moved on to Maidan Shahr on 10 February and Mohammed Agha the next day. Very soon, Hekmatyar found himself caught between the advancing Taliban and the government forces, and the morale of his men collapsed. On 14 February, he was forced to abandon his headquarters at Charasiab, from where rockets were fired at Kabul, and flee in disorder to Surobi.
Nonetheless, in May 1996, Rabbani and Hekmatyar finally formed a power-sharing government in which Hekmatyar was made prime minister. Rabbani was anxious to enhance the legitimacy of his government by enlisting the support of Pashtun leaders. However, the Mahipar agreement did not bring any such benefits to him as Hekmatyar had little grassroots support, but did have many adverse effects: it caused outrage among Jamiat supporters, and among the population of Kabul, who had endured Hekmatyar's attacks for the last four years. Moreover, the agreement was clearly not what the Pakistanis wanted, and convinced them of Hekmatyar's weakness, and that they should shift their aid entirely over to the Taliban. Hekmatyar took office on 26 June, and immediately started issuing severe decrees on women's dress, that struck a sharp contrast with the relatively liberal policy that Massoud had followed until then. The Taliban responded to the agreement with a further spate of rocket attacks on the capital. The Rabbani/Hekmatyar regime lasted only a few months before the Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996. Many of the HIG local commanders joined the Taliban "both out of ideological sympathy and for reason of tribal solidarity." Those that did not were expelled by the Taliban. In Pakistan Hezb-e-Islami training camps "were taken over by the Taliban and handed over" to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).
Hekmatyar then fled to Iran in 1997 where he is said to have resided for almost six years. Isolated from Afghanistan he is reported to have "lost ... his power base back home" to defections or inactivity of former members. He was also distrusted by the Iranian Government who found him too unpredictable, unreliable, and an unnecessary liability, considering its tense relations at the time with the Taliban and the Pakistani government, and despite his pleas, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards refused to establish a proxy through any of his organizations or assist him in any way. Allegedly, they even cut his phone lines and turned away anyone who wished to see him in his villa in North Tehran.
After the 9/11 attacks in the United States Hekmatyar, who had allegedly "worked closely" with bin Laden in early 1990s, declared his opposition to the US campaign in Afghanistan and criticized Pakistan for assisting the United States. After the U.S. entry into the anti-Taliban alliance and the fall of the Taliban, Hekmatyar rejected the U.N.-brokered accord of 5 December 2001 negotiated in Germany as a post-Taliban interim government for Afghanistan. As a result of pressure by the U.S. and the Karzai administration, on 10 February 2002 all the offices of Hezb-e-Islami were closed in Iran and Hekmatyar was expelled by his Iranian hosts.
The United States accuses Hekmatyar of urging Taliban fighters to re-form and fight against Coalition troops in Afghanistan. He is also accused of offering bounties for those who kill U.S. troops. He has been labeled a war criminal by members of the U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai's government. He is also a suspect behind the 5 September 2002 assassination attempt on Karzai that killed more than a dozen people. In September 2002, Hekmatyar released a taped message calling for jihad against the United States. On 25 December 2002 the news broke that American spy organizations had discovered Hekmatyar attempting to join al-Qaeda. According to the news, he had said that he was available to aid them. However, in a video released by Hekmatyar 1 September 2003, he denied forming alliances with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but praised attacks against U.S. and international forces.
On 19 February 2003 the United States State Department and the United States Treasury Department jointly designated Hekmatyar a "global terrorist." This designation meant that any assets Hekmatyar held in the USA, or held through companies based in the U.S., would be frozen. The U.S. also requested the United Nations Committee on Terrorism to follow suit, and designate Hekmatyar an associate of Osama bin Laden. In October 2003, he declared a ceasefire with local commanders in Jalalabad, Kunar, Logar and Surobi, and stated that they should only fight foreigners.
In May 2006, he released a video to Al Jazeera in which he accused Iran of backing the U.S. in the Afghan conflict and said he was ready to fight alongside Osama bin Laden and blamed the ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan on U.S. interference. In September 2006, he was reported as captured, but the report was later retracted. In December 2006, a video was released in Pakistan, where Gulbuddin Hekmatyar claimed "the fate Soviet Union faced is awaiting America as well." In January 2007 CNN reported that Hekmatyar claimed "that his fighters helped Osama bin Laden escape from the mountains of Tora Bora five years ago." BBC news reported a quote from a December 2006 interview broadcast on GEO TV, "We helped them [bin Laden and Zawahiri] get out of the caves and led them to a safe place."
In May 2008, the Jamestown Foundation reported that after being "sidelined from Afghan politics" since the mid-1990s, Gulbuddin's HIG group has "recently reemerged as an aggressive militant group, claiming responsibility for many bloody attacks against Coalition forces [at the time, primarily the International Security Assistance Force and the administration of President Hamid Karzai." The re-emergence of this "experienced guerrilla strategist" comes at a propitious time for insurgency, following the killing of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, when some elements of the Taliban were becoming "disorganized and frustrated." HIG has claimed responsibility for and is thought to have at least assisted in a 27 April 2008 attempt on the life of President Karzai in Kabul that killed three Afghan citizens, including a member of parliament. Other attacks it is thought to be responsible for include the 2 January 2008 shooting down in the Laghman province of a helicopter containing foreign troops; the shooting and forcing down of a U.S. military helicopter in the Sarubi district of Kabul on 22 January; and blowing up a Kabul police vehicle in March 2008, killing 10 soldiers.
In interviews he has demanded "all foreign forces to leave immediately unconditionally." Offers by President Hamid Karzai to open talks with "opponents of the government" and hints that they would be offered official posts "such as deputy minister or head of department", are thought to be directed at Hekmatyar. It was reported in 2008 that Hekmatyar lived in an unknown location in southeastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border. In 2008, he denied any links with the Taliban or al-Qaeda and was even considered for Prime Minister. Hekmatyar is now believed to shuttle between hideouts in Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas and in northeast Afghanistan.
In January 2010, he was still considered as one of the three main leaders of the Afghan insurgency. By then, he held out the possibility of negotiations with President Karzai and outlined a roadmap for political reconciliation. This contrasted with the views of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and allied insurgent chief Sirajuddin Haqqani, who refuse any talks with Kabul as long as foreign troops remain in the country, Hekmatyar appeared less reluctant.
On 22 September 2016, Hekmatyar was pardoned by the Afghan government as part of a peace deal between Hezb-i-Islami and the government. The deal also allows for the release of Hezb-i-Islami prisoners and the return of Hekmatyar to public life. The deal led a group of young activists to organise a protest against the pardoning less than a mile away from the signing ceremony. Human Rights Watch called the deal “an affront to victims of grave abuses”. Hezb-i-Islami agreed to cease hostilities, cut ties to extremist groups and respect the Afghan Constitution in exchange for government recognition of the group and support for the removal of United Nations and American sanctions against Hekmatyar, who was also promised an honorary post in the government.
The agreement was formalised on 29 September 2016 with both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Hekmatyar, who appeared via a video link in the presidential palace, signing the agreement. UN sanctions on him were formally lifted on 3 February 2017. On 4 May 2017, he returned to Kabul along with his fighters to meet President Ghani after spending two decades in hiding.
Some of Gulbuddin's relatives have served or are suspected of serving as his deputies.