What does Afghan warlord Hekmatyar's return mean?

Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar prays before giving a speech to supporters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on 30 April 2017 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many believe Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has political ambitions - something he denies

Afghanistan's conflict-weary citizens have cautiously welcomed the return of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul.

The leader of Afghanistan's second-largest militant group, Mr Hekmatyar is an Islamist warlord accused of numerous atrocities during the civil war of the 1990s.

But he has signed a peace deal with the Western-backed Afghan government and says he is abandoning violence.

Afghan leaders say the deal is a step forward for the nation, but how significant is it really and what are Mr Hekmatyar's plans now?

Will this help the security situation?

So far, no. Mr Hekmatyar's move to renounce violence seems not to be having any noticeable impact on the battlefield.

The main insurgent groups fighting the Afghan and Nato-led forces are the Taliban and its semi-autonomous Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and recently the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.

Mr Hekmatyar's forces were involved in sporadic small-scale attacks that were insignificant compared to the Taliban insurgency and they have largely tapered off in recent years.

Half of his Hizb-e-Islami party supported the post-2001 Western-backed Afghan government and the rest remained with him. Some believe this is more a peace accord with a person than with a major political or militant party that is actively involved in the current conflict.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Afghan leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai (L), President Ashraf Ghani (2ndL) and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (R) - attended a welcome ceremony for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (C) in Kabul

But is there a bigger picture?

Yes. His return is of greater symbolic importance. Mr Hekmatyar is still regarded as a religious figure who led a significant resistance movement against the former Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan under the banner of jihad.

Hekmatyar's history:

  • One of seven anti-Soviet faction chiefs who led mujahideen fighters in the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s
  • Led the Hezb-e-Islami, which clashed with other mujahideen factions in the struggle for control of Kabul in the bloody civil war of the 1990s
  • Forced to flee from Kabul to Iran when the Taliban swept to power in 1996
  • Iran expelled him in 2002, and in 2003 the US state department listed him as a terrorist, accusing him of taking part in attacks in Afghanistan
  • Signed a peace deal with the Afghan government in September 2016

His move to renounce the Taliban insurgency, calling it irreligious, plays to the interests of the Afghan government.

The Taliban, al-Qaeda and IS recruit young fighters on the basis that they are fighting to defend their religion and culture from foreigners.

But in his first public speech last week, Mr Hekmatyar told the Taliban that they were the reason for foreign forces' presence in Afghanistan. If they stopped fighting and there was peace, there would be no reason for the foreign forces to stay.

This message is in line with the Afghan government's long-standing rhetoric. But the message may have more resonance coming from someone like him. It may not remove the defending-your-religion narrative for a large number of Taliban fighters but it will strengthen the religious counter-argument.

Is he a changed character?

Surprising many, Mr Hekmatyar has so far conveyed a more moderate image.

Speaking at three public events in eastern Afghanistan and at the presidential palace in Kabul on Thursday, he said he accepted the constitution and supported free speech. He also said he regretted that there were no women at the public events.

His wife and daughter did attend his welcome ceremony at the presidential palace, the first public appearance of his female family members.

However, this may be aimed at showing he acknowledges the new political order and may not necessarily indicate he has changed.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Hekmatyar fought the Soviets in the 1980s, but is remembered by many for his role in the bloody civil war of the 1990s

Does he have political ambitions?

In the past, Mr Hekmatyar has gone to extreme lengths to achieve his political goals, including his bloody role in the devastating civil war. He also has supporters - on his second day in Kabul, he addressed a rally of thousands of people.

So far he insists that he has not made peace to get to power or to secure ministerial positions for his party. But many see that promise as too good to be true.

His speeches so far have hinted at future political involvement. He has spoken of a more centralised government, citing the new Turkish constitution, and says he opposes a parliamentary system.

He says he rejects the current Afghan government - a power-sharing "unity" government led by President Ashraf Ghani, with presidential rival Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive - as not a true reflection of Afghan voters' will.

He has also volunteered to mediate between the Taliban and the government.

Many believe he is going to be a player at the upcoming presidential elections. If he does not stand as a candidate, he will likely be a kingmaker given the support he still has in rural areas.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Crowds of supporters have listened to Mr Hekmatyar's speeches

How do people in Kabul feel?

Opinions in Kabul are divided, and his return is being hotly debated on social media.

Tens of thousands of people were killed during the civil war, in which Mr Hekmatyar played a destructive and violent part. Many believe the pursuit of justice has been compromised at the expense of peace.

But others argue that since other former warlords are already part of the post-Taliban political system, including Mr Hekmatyar will not change much.

Some also point out that the country needs a strong government and an independent judiciary to address gross human right violations during the years of civil strife, something that Afghanistan does not have now.

But his return is difficult for those who lost loved ones during the civil war.

In an illustration of the divisions, on Friday thousands attended his public address at Kabul sports stadium - but in western parts of Kabul many poured on to the streets to protest against him and to call for justice.

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