Negotiators in Afghanistan on Thursday signed a draft of a long-awaited peace agreement that would bring a notorious former warlord into the government fold while forgiving allegations that he was responsible for serious war crimes.
The deal commits Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – a chameleon-like militia commander, former CIA asset, prime minister and ally of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden who has been involved in fighting in Afghanistan for four decades – to renounce violence, cut ties to extremist groups and respect the Afghan Constitution.
The accord is also believed to grant amnesty to Hekmatyar and leaders of his Hezb-i-Islami militant organization for suspected crimes during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Hekmatyar's forces are blamed for indiscriminate rocket attacks against Kabul that killed hundreds of civilians, as well as the forced disappearances of political opponents.
It provides for the release of Hezb-i-Islami members being held in Afghan jails, and the removal of Hekmatyar's name and those of senior Hezb-i-Islami leaders from U.S. and United Nations terrorism blacklists.
The draft was signed by representatives of the Afghan government's High Peace Council, charged with negotiating truces with insurgents, and Hekmatyar's representatives. It now must be approved by Hekmatyar, who is living in an undisclosed location away from Kabul, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
While the accord probably won't reduce violence in Afghanistan – Hezb-i-Islami's few remaining fighters have not been a force on the battlefield for years – the Afghan government sought to portray it as a step toward a broader peace with more powerful militant groups, including the Taliban.
"The Afghan government's rationale for reaching a peace deal with him is aimed at encouraging other insurgent groups to join the negotiation process, to show that the Afghan government can on its own facilitate a peace talk and succeed," said Timor Sharan, Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Ghani's national security advisor, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, who also signed the agreement, called on the Taliban to prove independence from Pakistan, where its leadership is based, and come to the negotiating table.
"We have proven that we are on the side of peace," Atmar said. "Now you must come forward and take steps for peace. …
"Whatever we agreed with Hezb-i-Islami, we promise the same to you."
Ghani's bid to engage the Taliban in Pakistan-brokered talks collapsed this year while insurgent violence spread. In July, an Afghan government assessment concluded that more than half the country's districts were under threat from insurgent groups.
Hekmatyar, now in his 60s, is both an asset and a liability to an Afghan government that includes former warlords and has formed allegiances with others as it struggles to contain the Taliban insurgency.
A former leader of the jihadi campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he rose to become prime minister before allying with Al Qaeda and later the Taliban against Western forces in Afghanistan.
While never as potent as the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami claimed responsibility for a 2013 suicide bombing in Kabul that killed at least 15 people, including six Americans. That year Hezb-i-Islami loyalists also lobbied then-President Hamid Karzai to expel U.S. special forces soldiers from parts of volatile Wardak province following allegations that they were responsible for abusing and killing civilians.
The agreement does not specify whether Hekmatyar or his allies would hold posts in the government, but Amin Karim, head of the Hezb-i-Islami delegation, said the organization would continue to press for the withdrawal of the remaining foreign troops in Afghanistan, including more than 8,000 Americans.
"This agreement is not for our personal benefit," Karim said. "It is about restoring some of our rights."
Although Hekmatyar's influence has waned, his return would add another powerful Pashtun to a government already led by members of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, including Ghani and his top advisors.
"His arrival is likely to intensify tensions within an already fragile state that is relying very much on various strongmen who have had historical grievances against Hekmatyar and Hezb-i-Islami," Sharan said.
The United States, which added Hekmatyar to the State Department global terrorist list in 2003 over his support for Al Qaeda, has said it would consider lifting sanctions on Hekmatyar if he fulfilled the terms of a peace deal.
Many Afghans oppose amnesty for Hekmatyar. Before the signing ceremony, a few dozen protesters gathered in central Kabul carrying signs with messages such as, "We don't forgive the killer of Kabul."
Human rights groups described amnesty for Hekmatyar as the latest blow to efforts to seek accountability for war crimes in Afghanistan.
"Hekmatyar is not alone in enjoying impunity. None of the Afghan warlords from the 1990s has been held accountable," Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in a commentary.
"That, and the failed disarmament of abusive militias, have crippled reforms needed to build effective government institutions crucial for a lasting peace."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it welcomed the agreement "as a step in bringing the conflict in Afghanistan to a peaceful end."
"The United States continues to support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process that results in armed groups ceasing violence, breaking ties with international terrorist groups, and accepting the constitution, including protections for women and minorities," the embassy said in a statement.
Ahead of a major conference of donors in Brussels in early October, the United States, European Union and other allies are looking for signs of progress in Afghanistan and have quieted their calls for accountability, analysts said.
"Many other former jihadis that have committed similar atrocities now occupy key positions within the state and have long been indispensable," Sharan said. "Transitional justice for Afghans has long been dead."
Faizy is a special correspondent.
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