6 months after deal, stand­still over key Afghan war­lord’s re­turn

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com Sayed Salahud­din con­trib­uted to this re­port.

kabul — He is a ghost with a blood-soaked past, a man with so many en­e­mies that even his clos­est aides, try­ing to or­ches­trate his re­turn to the Afghan cap­i­tal he once at­tacked, coyly in­sist they have no idea where he is.

Six months ago, Gul­bud­din Hek­mat­yar emerged briefly from the shad­ows, ap­pear­ing via video to sign a peace agree­ment with Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani. The deal with the no­to­ri­ous fugi­tive war­lord — whose rock­ets rained down on Kabul dur­ing the 1990s civil war — was touted as a break­through that could in­duce Tal­iban in­sur­gents to fol­low suit.

Last month, the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil voted to lift ter­ror­ism­re­lated sanc­tions against Hek­mat­yar, 69, par­tially clear­ing his way to re­turn home and par­tic­i­pate in pol­i­tics. His aides here en­vi­sion a grand en­try into Kabul wor­thy of Alexan­der the Great, with car­a­vans con­verg­ing on the city from four direc­tions, thou­sands of armed guards se­cur­ing his path, and swarms of loy­al­ists fol­low­ing from camps in Pak­istan.

“The agree­ment has been made, and there will be no U-turn. He will come as a leader of the na­tion, and it will be a great help for peace. Big crowds will gather to wel­come him, and their num­bers will speak,” said Qaribur­rah­man Saeed, a spokesman for Hek­mat­yar, whose ad­vance team is op­er­at­ing from an el­e­gant, heav­ily guarded man­sion here.

But that pre­dic­tion is be­gin­ning to look like a fan­tasy. Ne­go­ti­a­tions over the con­di­tions of Hek­mat­yar’s re­turn are at a stand­still, and of­fi­cial en­thu­si­asm is wan­ing. Some an­a­lysts sug­gest that the im­mer­sion of such a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure in na­tional pol­i­tics, in­stead of help­ing to re­store peace after 16 years of war, could ag­gra­vate the power strug­gles that are tear­ing the gov­ern­ment apart.

Hek­mat­yar, known as a canny politi­cian, bru­tal fighter and stern Is­lamist, has cut a dizzy­ing path through suc­ces­sive Afghan con­flicts. In the 1980s he headed an anti-Soviet mili­tia spon­sored by the CIA and Pak­istan; after the Sovi­ets with­drew, he be­came a tran­si­tional prime min­is­ter and then a de­struc­tive fac­tional brawler in the civil strife that fol­lowed.

When the Tal­iban mili­tia seized power in 1996, Hek­mat­yar went un­der­ground, mov­ing be­tween Pak­istan and Iran. After the Tal­iban regime was over­thrown in 2001, he de­clared war on the new civil­ian rulers in Kabul, some­times fight­ing along­side Tal­iban in­sur­gents. His po­lit­i­cal party, Hezb-i-Is­lami, was de­clared il­le­gal, and the U.S. gov­ern­ment des­ig­nated it a ter­ror­ist group. Two ef­forts at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion failed, and Hek­mat­yar has not been seen in pub­lic in two decades.

Ghani’s in­vi­ta­tion to this in­vis­i­ble ad­ver­sary was viewed here as a des­per­ate move rather than a con­sid­ered strat­egy. In prin­ci­ple, Hek­mat­yar agreed to dis­arm his forces, re­spect the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion and re-en­ter po­lit­i­cal life; in re­turn, the gov­ern­ment of­fered him amnesty for wartime abuses, free­dom to or­ga­nize po­lit­i­cally, and gen­er­ous sub­si­dies for his life­style and pro­tec­tion.

But months later, ne­go­tia­tors are far apart on most cru­cial de­tails. Hek­mat­yar wants to bring his own se­cu­rity; the gov­ern­ment wants its forces in­volved. He wants hun­dreds of pris­on­ers from his for­mer mili­tia re­leased; the gov­ern­ment says only a frac­tion of them can be freed. He wants tens of thou­sands of his re­turn­ing fol­low­ers to be given land; the gov­ern­ment says that is not fea­si­ble.

To many Afghans, in­clud­ing those who suf­fered through the siege of Kabul by Hezb-i-Is­lami and other war­ring mili­tia fac­tions, even Ghani’s orig­i­nal con­ces­sions seemed too gen­er­ous, if not naive. Hu­man rights groups es­pe­cially con­demned the amnesty for Hek­mat­yar and his com­man­ders, who had gar­nered a rep­u­ta­tion for ex­cep­tional cru­elty over the course of three con­flicts.

“The im­punity granted him by the gov­ern­ment and the re­moval of his name from the U.N. black list will give him and his party free rein to con­tinue their crimes,” said Ubair Kabir, a mem­ber of the Sol­i­dar­ity Party of Afghanistan, which held protests against the ac­cord. “Jus­tice can­not be sac­ri­ficed for peace.”

The ne­go­ti­a­tions also have been stymied by po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions in both camps. Ghani’s power-shar­ing pact with his for­mer op­po­nent for the pres­i­dency, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, has de­te­ri­o­rated into an open feud. One of Hek­mat­yar’s for­mer ri­val groups, Jamiat-i-Is­lami, is in the thick of the fight. His aides, while ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ghani, are try­ing to re­vive old al­liances with lead­ers on both sides of that di­vide.

Hek­mat­yar’s party, too, has splin­tered into fac­tions in the ab­sence of its cen­tral leader. After Hezb-i-Is­lami was de­clared il­le­gal, some mem­bers left to work for the gov­ern­ment. Oth­ers stayed but pledged loy­alty to var­i­ous ex-mili­tia com­man­ders. Hek­mat­yar’s aides as­sert that once he re­turns, the mem­ber­ship will rally be­hind him, but so far they can­not even agree on whether he should re­turn as a party leader, a pres­i­den­tial con­tender or a be­nign el­der states­man.

“Hezb is very frag­mented, and it’s all about per­sonal in­ter­ests. We don’t know whether th­ese for­mer com­man­ders will unite around Hek­mat­yar or work against him,” said Ti­mor Sha­ran, who rep­re­sents the non­profit In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group in Kabul. He noted that Hek­mat­yar is ru­mored to be ill.

“This is his last at­tempt to reach power, this time through elec­tions,” Sha­ran said.

As Hek­mat­yar’s po­lit­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion bogs down, hopes are fad­ing that his re­turn might in­spire the Tal­iban to rec­on­cile with the gov­ern­ment, too. One gov­ern­ment ad­viser, who was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly and thus spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said: “There is a feel­ing that things have failed. Ex­cite­ment is down.”

Many Afghans ar­gue that bank­ing on Hek­mat­yar to in­flu­ence the Tal­iban was un­re­al­is­tic to be­gin with, given the in­sur­gents’ in­creas­ing suc­cess on the bat­tle­field and their de­nun­ci­a­tion of him as a crim­i­nal and traitor to Is­lam when the peace ac­cord was an­nounced. In some re­gions his forces have joined with the Tal­iban, but in oth­ers they have been com­peti­tors.

And although Hek­mat­yar re­mains pop­u­lar in cer­tain prov­inces, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine him be­ing wel­comed back to the cap­i­tal he once pounded with rock­ets. Well aware of this, his ad­vis­ers in Kabul have been work­ing to re-brand him as a thought­ful re­li­gious scholar and man of let­ters. Two weeks ago, they or­ga­nized a con­fer­ence here to show­case his writ­ings, in­clud­ing more than 100 books, mainly on Is­lamic top­ics.

“For 30 years, peo­ple only heard the op­po­si­tion pro­pa­ganda about us,” said Ka­reem Amin, a long­time Hek­mat­yar ad­viser. “We are not in­tran­si­gent war­lords. We want to unify and re­build Afghanistan.”

Although he said he was not in di­rect touch with Hek­mat­yar, Amin de­scribed him as “a man of wis­dom and knowl­edge” who spends his time “read­ing and writ­ing.” In the re­cent video, the ag­ing war­lord wore glasses and looked like a dig­ni­fied el­der.

But un­less Hek­mat­yar ven­tures out of hid­ing and re­makes him­self as a man of peace, he is likely to re­main lodged in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion as the ruth­less “butcher of Kabul” — a city where old build­ings bear the scars of rocket fire from a quar­ter-cen­tury ago, and res­i­dents still de­scribe cow­er­ing in their base­ments, curs­ing his name.

OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS

Afghans watch a screen show­ing Gul­bud­din Hek­mat­yar speak dur­ing the sign­ing of a peace deal be­tween the no­to­ri­ous in­sur­gent leader and the Afghan gov­ern­ment in Kabul in Septem­ber. Hek­mat­yar signed the ac­cord re­motely, and his where­abouts re­main un­known.

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