He was a CIA ally against the Soviet Union, a friend of Osama bin Laden and a ruthless insurgent leader whose forces killed thousands of civilians during the Afghan civil war.
Now the inveterate militant Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is trying to open a new chapter by making peace with the Afghan government.
Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-i-Islami militant organization, is reportedly close to a truce that would end nearly two decades in exile for one of the most enduring and controversial figures in the long Afghan conflict.
Now in his 60s, Hekmatyar has been exiled since the Taliban came to power in 1996 and drove him out of the country. Hezb-i-Islami is often described as the second largest insurgent group in Afghanistan, but his fighters have little presence on the battlefield and many of Hekmatyar’s former loyalists have defected to the much larger Taliban.
Still, a deal would be a slight boost for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose effort to make peace with Afghanistan’s insurgent groups has been flagging while the Taliban continues to battle government forces.
The outlines of an agreement, which were reported by multiple sources on Saturday, would require Hezb-i-Islami’s military wing to lay down its arms, respect the Afghan Constitution and cut off ties with any other armed opposition groups.
In return, Hezb-i-Islami fighters in government custody would be released and given the same amnesty granted to other militant groups that were formed to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the Cold War and are accused of killing civilians.
Mohammad Umer Daudzai, a former interior minister, praised Hekmatyar’s support for peace but said he doubted it would affect the course of the fighting.
“Hekmatyar has not been a major force in the war in quite a while,” Daudzai said.
Once one of the favorite clients in Afghanistan for U.S. and Pakistani intelligence, Hekmatyar gained a reputation as a power-hungry extremist who came to denounce his U.S. patrons. After taking CIA support to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he battled his fellow mujahideen commanders during a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
His forces and other factions shelled Kabul indiscriminately during those years and are accused of causing thousands of civilian deaths. He negotiated his way to the prime ministership before the Taliban pushed him out when it came to power.
Now believed to be living in Pakistan, Hekmatyar was designated a “global terrorist” by the U.S. government and had close ties with Bin Laden when the late Al Qaeda leader was based in Afghanistan. Even as Hekmatyar's support has waned — Hezb-i-Islami’s political wing has a presence in parliament and the Cabinet but does not have ties to him – he retained a measure of influence with writings and recorded speeches in which he often rails against the United States.
The talks between Hekmatyar’s group and the government’s High Peace Council were reportedly held in Kabul over the last two months. In an interview with the Pajhwok news agency, Mohammad Amin Karim, the group’s lead negotiator, said Hekmatyar’s return to Afghanistan was up in the air but the group asked for Kabul to seek the removal of his name from the U.S. blacklist.
Like other former militia commanders blamed for war crimes — including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Mohaqiq, both senior figures in the government — Hekmatyar would be shielded from prosecution under a 2007 amnesty law passed under former President Hamid Karzai.
The entrenched impunity for powerful leaders deeply undermined Afghans’ confidence in Karzai’s government and is contributing to growing frustration with Ghani’s.
“Many Afghans revile Hekmatyar because his forces relentlessly and indiscriminately rocketed and shelled Kabul in the early 1990s,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “His forces weren’t the only ones to do it, but they carried out some of the worst attacks, killing and wounding thousands.”
Some observers wonder whether Hekmatyar would try to seek political power again.
“I think he is very ambitious. He would not come to Kabul and accept an isolated life,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst. “He would certainly engage in politics, and we know what kind of politics he favors….
“He has always had radical views, and that could certainly be a problem for the government.”
Pajhwok reported Sunday that Ghani was due to discuss the the talks with members of parliament. In a sign of how he might try to sell the agreement, his wife, Rula Ghani, said Hekmatyar and other former mujahideen leaders were “old people” who should be allowed back home.
“They are ending their lives,” the Afghan first lady told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington over the weekend. “If they want to come to Afghanistan and finish their lives where they were born, I think it is only the human way to say, ‘OK, you come, but we put some conditions.’”
The news of the deal comes just weeks after Ghani declared that he would suspend efforts to begin direct talks with the Taliban, a centerpiece of his foreign police since taking office in August 2014.
Months of meetings among diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and China had failed to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters continued to battle government forces. A truck bombing in Kabul, which intelligence officials attributed to the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, killed 64 people and wounded hundreds last month.
Many analysts believe the Taliban, whose leadership is fractured, is divided over whether to engage in talks and has little incentive to start them while Ghani’s unity government is under stress. A major anti-government demonstration was expected in Kabul on Monday, including members of various ethnic and political groups that have formed part of the government but are increasingly disenchanted with Ghani’s leadership, the ongoing fighting and a flailing economy.
A former government official who had campaigned for Ghani in 2014, and requested anonymity to speak candidly, said he doubted the wisdom of wooing Hekmatyar.
“Why not put that effort toward the group with the power to keep us in a state of war —– the Taliban?” the former official said.
Special correspondent Latifi reported from Kabul and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.