Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Afghan warlord known as the "Butcher of Kabul," returned to the city he so often attacked with rockets and was welcomed Thursday by President Ashraf Ghani, who thanked him for "heeding the peace call."
Hekmatyar, 69, is among the most prominent surviving figures from the early days of war that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and grinds on to this day.
"Let's end the war, live together as brothers and then ask foreigners to leave our country," Hekmatyar said in his appearance with Ghani at the Presidential Palace.
On the one hand, Hekmatyar's peaceful return to the Afghan capital — made possible by his agreeing to abide by the country's constitution and renounce violence — cautiously raises hopes that Ghani's government can persuade rivals and enemies to stop fighting and bring an end to nearly four decades of conflict.
Yet Hekmatyar is despised by many Afghans. There's also the possibility that he and his followers in the hardline Hezb-i-Islami party will only increase tensions as the government struggles with political, economic and military challenges.
Hekmatyar has been involved in every stage of the Afghan war.
As seven main Afghan factions fought the Soviets in the 1980s, Hekmatyar's group was considered to have the best fighters. The U.S. and its allies funded the rebel effort, with Pakistan serving as the conduit. The Pakistanis were also partial to Hekmatyar and his fighters, and are believed to have given more weapons to Hezb-i-Islami than any other group.
President Reagan and other U.S. officials called the mujahideen rebels "freedom fighters" and there were no worries at the time about the radical Islamist positions that Hezb-i-Islami and others espoused. The larger aim was driving out Soviet forces, and Hekmatyar's group was very effective.
But after the Soviets pulled out in 1989, U.S. interest in Afghanistan declined dramatically, and the Afghan mujahideen factions waged a bitter civil war during much of the 1990s.
Once again, Hekmatyar was a central figure.
His group controlled the hills on the edge of the capital and fired rockets indiscriminately on the city, destroying entire neighborhoods that dated back centuries. An estimated 50,000 were killed and many more injured, almost all civilians, from 1992 to 1996.
This was an extremely nasty period in the war, and Hekmatyar, accused of atrocities and human rights violations, became known as the "Butcher of Kabul" — the most ruthless warlord in a country dominated by warlords.
Afghanistan's President Burhanuddin Rabbani was so desperate, he named Hekmatyar the prime minister in 1993 in an attempt to end the fighting. Yet Hekmatyar remained at his base just to the southeast of the city, and his forces pressed ahead with their rocket barrage on most days.
When a cabinet meeting was planned, the rockets would cease and Hekmatyar's heavily armed convoy would roll into the center of Kabul so he could preside over the talks.
There was no need to parse wishy-washy statements afterward. If the meeting went poorly, Hekmatyar and his convoy simply drove out of the city and resumed bombardment.
His government did not last long.
I met with Hekmatyar under tense circumstances in 1993. His forces seized an Associated Press reporter, John Jennings, who was covering a skirmish outside Kabul. I was an AP correspondent at the time, and traveled from Pakistan to Afghanistan to seek Jennings' release.
It was possible to drive across the front line when the shooting died down during the Muslim prayer times.
I drove to Hekmatyar's base, where he said he was unaware that his faction was holding Jennings — though he was being detained a short distance away. After several long days of waiting in Kabul, I was summoned by Hekmatyar's men and returned to the base, where Jennings and another journalist were released unharmed.
Hekmatyar was forced away from the capital in 1995 by the advancing Taliban, who captured Kabul the following year. He disappeared from public view after that, taking refuge first in Iran. Later, he was believed to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
His forces remained active in the Afghan fighting, battling the Taliban until the group was ousted in 2001 by the U.S.-led coalition.
Then Hekmatyar fought against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and called for the Americans — his supporters in the 1980s — to leave Afghanistan.
The U.S. formally declared Hekmatyar a "global terrorist" in 2003. The U.N. also designated him as a terrorist. His group steadily declined in power over the years, and last September, the white-bearded Hekmatyar agreed to renounce violence and make peace with the Afghan government. The U.N. took him off its terrorist list in February.
But he did not return to Kabul until Thursday.
For Ghani's government, this is a rare positive note — assuming Hekmatyar and his supporters abide by the deal and don't create new political problems.
In remarks last week, Hekmatyar called on the Taliban to "join the peace caravan and stop this pointless holy war."
His return suggests how the Afghan war could end someday: not on the battlefield, but in agreements with groups — like the Taliban — that have committed terrible violence.
Still, his presence in the capital will be a bitter pill to swallow for Kabul residents who remember the pain he inflicted in the 1990s. There's been no indication that he will have a role in the government.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan still number more than 8,000 and the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, is seeking more for a war that he says is a "stalemate." But the U.S. role now is limited, consisting mostly of air strikes and training the Afghan military, and few analyst see the prospect of a decisive military victory.
NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre, who first reported from Afghanistan in 1993. Follow him @gregmyre1.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
One of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords returned to the country's capital, Kabul, today. He was praised by the president for heeding the call of peace. This is a big deal because the warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, used to fire rockets at the city and was known as the Butcher of Kabul. NPR's Greg Myre has reported on him, has actually met him and is here to tell us more. Hi there, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So tell us about Hekmatyar and what today means for this long war in Afghanistan.
MYRE: Well, Hekmatyar perhaps as much as anybody embodies this nearly four decades of war in Afghanistan. He first came to prominence very early on in the 1980s. His faction, Hezb-e Islami, was one of the seven fighting the Soviet Union and was considered the best fighters. The U.S. liked them. They seemed to get most of the money and the weapons and were very effective. Ronald Reagan called all these Mujahideen groups freedom fighters. Nobody seemed to care at that time about their radical Islamist statements and ideology.
He's played all sorts of role since then. He turned on the Americans, fought against them. The Americans labeled him a terrorist. He's been the prime minister in the Afghan government. He's fought against the Afghan government, had a complicated relationship with the Taliban.
And Afghans' president - Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, is hoping that this will show that he can bring rivals and enemies into the government, persuade them to stop fighting. And of course the biggest prize of all would be the Taliban.
MCEVERS: So is that why he was welcomed back, you know, and talked, you know - mentioned in terms of making peace?
MYRE: Ghani would certainly hope that he can bring in the Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group - that it shows that Afghans are able to get past this horrible, horrible violence they've had for so long. So that's the point of it. If that actually happens, we'll have to see.
MCEVERS: And you dealt with Hekmatyar back in the '90s. What were the circumstances there?
MYRE: So an Associated Press reporter, John Jennings, got seized while he was covering some fighting. And he was taken by Hekmatyar's men. I was based in Pakistan with the AP at that time. I went to Kabul, drove across the front line, was able to set up a meeting with him. He claimed no knowledge of my colleague John Jennings, sent me on my way. But a few days later, his men tracked me down in Kabul and summoned me to come out there, and he released John unharmed.
MCEVERS: What do you think? I mean do you think that today's development does improve the prospect for peace in Afghanistan?
MYRE: By itself, no. I mean Hekmatyar has certainly faded. His group is not what it was. So I don't think by itself it's going to make a big difference. But there's a couple of important points here. I mean first of all, this is a very bitter pill to swallow for a lot of Kabul residents, particularly those who were there in the '90s when the rockets just came raining down out of the sky. In a sort of four-year period from '92 to '96, you had about 50,000 people killed, and Hekmatyar's group was the one that was most responsible for that. I mean he's literally walking on the red carpet at the presidential palace. There are posters of him all over the place in the city right now. So that's sort of tough to take for some Kabul residents.
But the other thing is, in a somewhat contradictory vein, this may be the way the Afghan war will end someday - not on the battlefield but with peace agreements and political deals, again, with groups like the Taliban and individuals like Hekmatyar who've committed terrible, terrible violence over the years.
MCEVERS: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre who first reported from Afghanistan in 1993. Thank you so much.
MYRE: Thank you, Kelly.
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