The calamitous scenes at Kabul’s airport, where thousands of people are scrambling to escape the Taliban before an August 31 deadline, prove the US is not concerned with the fate of ordinary Afghans, Islamist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar told The National.
With days before the US ends its 20-year presence in Afghanistan and with tens of thousands of Afghans soon to be left stranded, Mr Hekmatyer said the facts speak for themselves.
The US “encouraged Afghans to run to the airport even without proper documents, to show the world that Afghans need them the most and to defame the Taliban”, he alleged. Reports indicate that many have been turned away by US troops because they lack visas or other paperwork.
“The fact is that the Americans do not care about Afghans at all,” Mr Hekmatyar said.
Hours after his interview with The National, an ISIS suicide bomber and at least one gunman unleashed what is believed to be the deadliest bombing in the history of the Afghanistan war, killing about 200 people, including 13 US troops.
Mr Hekmatyar, who delivered a sermon in a Kabul mosque on Friday to mourn the dead, has a long and dark history in Afghanistan and has himself faced plenty of criticism for his role in the suffering of Afghans during the civil war.
His Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin party gained notoriety in 1992 when forces loyal to Mr Hekmatyar launched a hail of rockets on Kabul, laying much of it to waste. The battle killed 50,000 people.
An agreement between warring factions briefly installed Mr Hekmatyar as prime minister in 1996, before his government was overthrown by the newly formed Taliban movement.
Mr Hekmatyar was given refuge in Iran, where after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, he reportedly collaborated with Al Qaeda and eventually formed a working relationship with the Taliban.
His forces became a deadly thorn in the side of the US-backed Afghan government, first under Hamid Karzai, then Ashraf Ghani.
But after signing a peace agreement with the Ghani administration in 2016 in exchange for amnesty, he became an influential power broker in the conservative wing of Afghan politics.
Since the Taliban’s takeover on August 15, Mr Hekmatyar’s extremist credentials have allowed him to maintain that role, acting as a bridge between the new regime and what is left of the pre-existing political establishment.
Mr Hekmatyar is one third of a self-styled “Co-ordination Council” that wants to help smooth the Taliban’s transition to ruling today’s Afghanistan. The other two members are Mr Karzai and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Taliban officials have been circumspect about what role – if any – the council is expected to play in their new administration, but Mr Hekmatyar says that it will “create an opportunity for Afghans to sit with one another and make decisions for the future of Afghanistan”.
Taliban leaders are said to take Mr Hekmatyar’s advice more seriously than that of Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah.
A few days after their conquest of Kabul, photographs taken in the city showed senior Taliban leadership at daily prayers, with Mr Hekmatyar leading the congregation.
The council, Mr Hekmatyar says, was formed before the Taliban’s blitz through a series of provincial capitals this month.
“We wanted the Taliban not to enter Kabul or any of the other capitals, and we wanted to avoid anyone entering these places with weapons,” he said.
“We tried to tell the government, police and army to stay in their posts and allow for a smooth transition.”
Mr Hekmatyar claims the Taliban’s decision to enter Kabul armed was the result of a clandestine plot by the US.
The National has reported on a deal between Mr Ghani and the Taliban in which the president would have resigned in return for a two-week handover period, but Mr Ghani fled Afghanistan before the plan could be enacted.
The exiled president says he left to avoid a bloodbath.
Decades of instability and western intervention in Afghanistan have taken Mr Hekmatyar’s life through many unexpected turns.
The Kabul he returned to after he was granted amnesty in 2016 more closely resembles the one that enraged him during the time of the country’s monarchy in the 1960s (when he was the leader of an Islamist student movement at Kabul University) than the one he briefly governed during the civil war in the 1990s: women’s rights, secular thought, free speech and western culture have a foothold – and a much firmer one than under the monarchy or the communists.
Mr Hekmatyar’s own family is not immune to the changes.
Although he is as much of a fundamentalist as ever, one of Mr Hekmatyar’s grandsons, Obaidullah Baheer, with whom he maintains a close – if complicated – relationship, was educated in Pakistan and Australia, and is now a well-known lecturer in transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan.
In an op-ed this month for The National, Mr Baheer wrote that “the Taliban leadership should include Afghan female politicians in their meetings” and that “the Taliban movement will have to practise restraint against demonstrators and realise that a regime built on oppressing opposing voices is always going to be short-lived”.
Mr Hekmatyar does not go so far as to advocate women taking on leadership roles, but he does state that Afghan women who are afraid of Taliban rule should “not panic and not worry”.
He insists that it was Afghanistan’s previous government that “deprived women of their rights, as given in the Sharia”.
Talk of women’s rights not being respected in the new Afghanistan is “western propaganda”, he claims, and that previously “women were disrespected and had no identity”.
The day before Mr Hekmatyar spoke to The National, Taliban officials in Kabul announced that women ought to remain at home indefinitely as the group’s fighters have not yet been trained properly on how to respect them.
Another challenge facing Mr Hekmatyar and the rest of the Co-ordination Council is the status of religious minorities, which have been persecuted heavily by the Taliban in past years.
“Islam respects every tribe and nation,” Mr Hekmatyar says, “though everyone should agree that the majority of Afghanistan’s population is Muslim and that must be respected.”
“Previous governments in Afghanistan’s history were not created here, but rather in Moscow, London and Washington. It was always an imposed government. This time, it will be an inclusive one created inside Afghanistan.”
He hopes to see “one law and one government” elected by the majority.
While few in Afghanistan may believe him, given his violent extremist past, Mr Hekmatyar insists: “I am here to ensure that the future government will be inclusive and will give rights and respect to all, including Afghanistan’s minorities. [The Co-ordination Council] will be discussing these points with the Taliban in the future.”
It is unclear to what specific point in the future Mr Hekmatyar refers.
“At this moment, the Taliban is still in a state of ambush,” he says. “We should only talk about the constitution and law once the war is over completely.”
The Taliban have repeated several times in public messages that the war is, indeed, over. But it is clear from the continuing violence, as well as scenes of people attempting to flee the country that many Afghans share Mr Hekmatyar’s view that it is not.