One of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, accused of multiple terrorism attacks and war crimes, has triumphantly returned to Kabul in his first public appearance there for 20 years.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar entered the Afghan capital in a convoy guarded by four army helicopters .
But arriving in Kabul, the procession looked less like a peace delegation and more like a militia touting grenade launchers and machine guns from the back of pickup trucks.
Hekmatyar drove west to the presidential palace where he appeared alongside , Afghanistan’s president. “The most important issue for me is to end this war and rescue the country from crisis,” the ageing former insurgent leader said.
Not everyone in the city was convinced. To some, his reappearance brought back memories of the civil war in the 1990s, when the capital was shelled by warring factions.
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Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami is is believed to have destroyed and killed more than any other rebel group. Among Afghanistan’s many warlords, Hekmatyar stands out with an almost unparalleled record of human rights abuses. Aside from indiscriminate shelling of civilians, he is accused of assassinating intellectuals, feminists and royalists. His followers have run torture chambers in Pakistan and thrown acid at women.
“Gulbuddin only fights for himself, not for the benefit of ,” said Milad Sarwari, an 18-year-old student. Close by, a newly erected billboard featuring Hekmatyar’s image had been defaced with red paint.
But Mohammad Yasin, 54, believed Hekmatyar could help bring about peace if he was sincere. “He has been a holy warrior for 30 years. He is like a father to his followers. They will obey him,” said Yasin.
Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said Hekmatyar’s return to a presidential welcome in Kabul signalled a rehabilitation of his political career.
“Hekmatyar comes home on a red carpet. He is a failed figure, whose people are dwindling on the battlefield,” she said. “The fact that the government can do this without mentioning war crimes is quite extraordinary.”
Clark called Hekmatyar a strong ideologue compared with other Afghan politicians. “A very hardline Islamist,” she said.
For Ghani, the peace deal is an accomplishment hailed by diplomats and foreign donors as a first step towards nationwide reconciliation. But the inclusion of Hekmatyar in the volatile political powder keg of Afghan politics is a gamble. “Hekmatyar has never been a team player and has never really worked for anyone else,” Clark said.
Ghani, who coexists in an uneasy coalition with the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, is now faced with a charismatic, historically strong leader vying for Ghani’s own ethnic base, the Pashtuns.
One western diplomat suggested Hekmatyar could act to sideline Ghani, seen by some as a cerebral technocrat out of step with the people.
Hekmatyar’s resumed public leadership of Hezb-i Islami, whose political wing has become increasingly integrated in government, could give him political muscle. “If [Hezb-i Islami] can reunite, it certainly makes them the strongest party nationwide,” said the diplomat.
In an attempt to throw off his nickname as the “butcher of Kabul”, Hekmatyar has portrayed himself as a mediator of peace, asking the Taliban – “my brothers” – to lay down arms.
Peace, he said in Kabul, would justify the departure of foreign troops, a demand he only recently rescinded as part of the peace accord.
In recent years, Hekmatyar’s group was behind sporadic terrorist attacks including a that killed eight people.
Foreign donors and diplomats have hailed the peace agreement as a necessary first step , by far the largest insurgent group in the country. “We have promised the nation that we will pave the way for the peace and today an important step has been taken,” Ghani said during the ceremony.
Hekmatyar is due to hold a rally for his followers on Friday. He had asked to assemble in a central football stadium but it was unclear whether the government would allow it.