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A Reluctant Welcome From Notorious Warlords in Afghanistan

A USAID officer secured a meeting with two senior and notorious Afghan warlords in the late 1980s when he appeared as an unexpected (and unwanted) guest in their homes. Adhering to the Pashtun code of conduct requiring hospitality be offered to every guest.  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayaaf reluctantly — but courteously — welcomed Crandall, offering him refreshments and conversation. The relationships that Crandall cultivated during his tour in Pakistan as Director of the Cross-border Program from 1985-1990, and his access to Afghan leaders, proved valuable to the U.S. government in attempting to understand and influence Afghan affairs.  At the time, the United States was supporting anti-Soviet mujahideen militia. Hekmatyar and Sayaaf were prominent mujahideen leaders.


After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in 1979, militia groups battling the pro-Soviet government in Kabul escalated their resistance, uniting to carry out a growing program of guerrilla warfare — with U.S. backing.  Collectively referred to as “the mujahideen,” these independent militias were led by regional tribal commanders. In the early to mid-1980s, seven of the major mujahideen parties formed a loose alliance to present a common front and point of contact for the international community: the Seven Party Mujahideen Alliance or, simply, the Peshawar Seven. Peshawar was the primary destination for Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan and served as the political center for the Afghan resistance.


Many of the Peshawar Seven were extremely anti-American, so much so that they refused to meet with Americans, or even allow Americans into larger meetings. However, through extensive Afghan connections, USAID officer Lawrence Crandall was able to meet with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder and leader of the Hizb-i-Islami group and a major force in Afghan affairs for decades to follow.  In his ADST oral history, Crandall discusses the circumstances that led to his meeting with Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayaaf, another member of the Peshawar Seven.

Drafted by Jamie Smith

Read Lawrence Crandall’s full oral history HERE.

“But even though this cutthroat butcher, and that is the best I could say about him, was stunned he nonetheless was a Pashtun and was required by the code of Pashtunwali to be welcoming.”

Background on Hekmatyar: Until this past year [2016] Hekmatyar remained on the outs with both the Afghan and U.S. Governments. He was on our most wanted terrorist lists to the point we tried to kill him twice with drones but missed. I heard Special Forces went after him but they missed too.


Meeting Hekmatyar: He became a notorious member of the seven parties we supported because he fought as much against the other parties in Afghanistan as he did against the Soviets. That was always very problematic for the U.S. Government because we were providing arms and ammunition and other things to help. He was quite effective. He certainly wasn’t always doing the things we wanted or expected. [My contact] Dashtagir worked for him as a political advisor and he offered to take me to meet him. I knew that he hated Americans and I knew that he hated to meet with Americans and I knew he didn’t want to be in mixed meetings with Americans. I knew all that. Still, Dashtagir was one of his political advisors and I thought if he is a political advisor and he takes me in to see him that should be worth something. Hekmatyar had six safe houses in Peshawar where he stayed at different times. I was taken to the one where he stayed at that particular moment. We walked into his office and Hekmatyar was stunned to see an American. He didn’t know who I was at that point. He was absolutely stunned. But even though this cutthroat butcher, and that is the best I could say about him, was stunned he nonetheless was a Pashtun and was required by the code of Pashtunwali to be welcoming., The code says all Pashtuns must treat guests, even the ones you hate, with dignity. He did that. He ordered tea and crackers and I was very surprised to learn that he had passable English. Dashtagir spoke idiomatic English and he stayed to interpret where necessary. But, Hekmatyar wanted to show that he was educated. In fact, he was a failed engineering student at Kabul University many years before but still he wanted to show that he was educated so we did as much as we could in English. We had a good political discussion about the War. He was the first leader I met though he was certainly the least respected by at least some elements of the USG [United States Government]. The next time I met him was with all seven leaders and he acted as though we had never met.


Hekmatyar Meeting Secretary of State Shultz: Shultz wanted to see the faces of the seven leaders and shake their hands. He had never met any of them…The Secretary’s schedule got so jammed up that all we could do was arrange a meeting at the funeral [of President Zia]. The seven leaders were “required” to be there. I was waiting with the seven near the Faisal Mosque and introduced each to the Secretary. Not all could speak English but some could and they served as impromptu interpreters. When I introduced Hekmatyar, the Secretary said “I have heard about you.” Hekmatyar smiled but did not reply. Shultz moved to the other introductions.

The Surprise Meeting with Sayyaf: At our last encounter, I forgot to mention how I met with another of the leaders, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf who is and has long been a handmaiden of the ultra-conservative Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. I repeatedly tried to meet him privately but it didn’t happen. He kept saying no. He wouldn’t meet with me even when I was doing things to help him and his party. I had a very good relationship with an ISI colonel in Peshawar. [Note:  ISI is Pakistan’s lead intelligence service.] His name was Omar. I asked Omar for a meeting with Sayyaf and he said, “OK, here is what we are going to do. He will be mad at me but I will set up a meeting saying I need to talk to him tomorrow afternoon. And I won’t tell him that you are coming with me. We will just go.” He lived in the outskirts of Peshawar in a big militarized compound with anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the building where he lived and worked and incredible perimeter security. We roll in to his compound and walk in. Like Hekmatyar, Sayyaf was absolutely shocked to see an American there. I mean this guy is a Wahabi among Wahhabis. So Omar who is a Pashtun quieted him down in his own language. The Pashtun code kicked in and he was required to be hospitable. So, it was a repeat of the Hekmatyar meeting and he was charming and gracious. He spoke a little English and did the best he could. So, the ISI colonel did the translation. Sayyaf speaks idiomatic Arabic. Anyway, those are some of the things I had to go through to meet some of these guys. My colleagues in the other agency wouldn’t do things like that. I told the ambassador about that one too.  [U.S. Ambassador Deane] Hinton was still there. This was shortly before he left. He said, ‘Jesus Christ how do you do this?



     BA in International Affairs at University of Colorado                                           1962

     MA in International Affairs at University of Colorado                                          1964

USAID Involvement

     Vietnam—Language Officer                                                                                        1967-1970

     Ethiopia—USAID Program Officer                                                                            1971-1975

     Pakistan—Director of the Cross-Border Program                                                  1985-1990

     Haiti—USAID Mission Director                                                                                 1994-1997