Iran, Afghanistan Juggle Hot Potato Hekmatyar

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Golbedin Hekmatyar, the leader of Afghanistan Islamic Party

The U.S. wants Iran to stop meddling in Afghanistan by supporting those who would undermine the authority of the interim government of Hamid Karzai. Yet last week, the Tehran government claims, it was asked by both Karzai and Washington to hold off on expelling a fanatically anti-American warlord who has been organizing a campaign against the new government in Kabul and its U.S. backers. Administration officials deny that the U.S. has made such requests.

Iran?s curious claim concerns the paunchy Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who currently lives in Tehran. The former prime minister who has fought against every Afghan government since 1979 has made no exception of the latest administration in Kabul. He recently told an interviewer that Karzai's government "has no value or meaning" as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.

It seems far-fetched that a tribal chieftain secluded in a villa in northern Tehran, his phone lines cut and official visits banned could pose any threat to neighboring Afghanistan. Hekmatyar has been holed up in Iran since being driven out of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996, and has little support, even his one-time followers, and lacks the war chest to raise an army. Most Afghanis loathe him as the commander responsible for reducing Kabul to rubble in a fierce power struggle with rival commanders that killed tens of thousands of people in the early 1990s. But his virulent anti-Americanism makes him a dangerous loose cannon amid the power struggles that persist throughout the Pashtun heartland. And he makes no bones about his intentions: "We prefer involvement in internal war rather than occupation by foreigners and foreign troops," he told an interviewer.

And his anti-American rhetoric may be more than just wild ranting by a marginal former mujahid. Reports from Kandahar suggest his followers have been involved in attacks on the U.S. airbase there, and have also been seeking out allies among disaffected local warlords for a campaign against the new government and its American allies. Unconfirmed reports from Afghanistan also suggest that Hekmatyar's supporters may have been conspiring with his erstwhile Taliban foes in Pakistan to launch a new campaign against the Americans and the Karzai government.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. wants Iran to end Hekmatyar's activities. And Iran's reformist elected government appears inclined to comply. They shut down his offices two weeks ago and the country's top foreign policy body, the Supreme National Security Council, voted last week to expel Hekmatyar from Iran. But Iranian media reports suggested the delay in implementing that decision resulted from urgent appeals from Washington and Kabul to hold off on expelling him. The Iranian daily Qods recently quoted an official source saying that "Karzai has asked Tehran to keep Hekmatyar in Iran so that Kabul is always informed about his whereabouts and activities."

One possible reason for requesting the delay: Following the closure of his offices, Hekmatyar warned that he would return to Afghanistan if forced to leave Iran. According to a spokesperson, the State Department hasn't sent any direct messages to Tehran about Hekmatyar. But Washington's preference is clear: "We're not looking for him to go back to Afghanistan," says the spokesperson. Iran would have liked him gone sooner, but according to Foreign Minister Kharrazi: "The reason Hekmatyar is still in Iran is because our friends and those outside the region have requested it, but he is free to leave the country."

Presumably, though, not if he's headed home. Sources close to Iran's Foreign Ministry claim Tehran will expel Hekmatyar from the country next week, following the visit of Hamid Karzai. And close associates expect that his next home may be in Baghdad.