Afghan Warlord Returns to City He Left in Ruins as Hope for Peace

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At a gathering organized for Mr. Hekmatyar and more than a thousand of his supporters at the presidential palace, Mr. Ghani said the warlord’s return to the capital was a big step toward achieving peace.

He said the peace deal had factored in that the country had changed over the last 20 years, an apparent attempt to reassure the public after recent comments by Mr. Hekmatyar raised fears that he would turn back the clock on some freedoms, including the growth of independent news media, which is viewed as a major achievement of the last decade.

“Today’s generation has different wishes,” Mr. Ghani said, adding that free speech and difference of opinion would have to be respected.

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Mr. Hekmatyar in 1992. A deal with Mr. Ghani gives Mr. Hekmatyar immunity for past crimes, releases dozens of political prisoners linked to him and allows him to lead his party, Hizb-e-Islami, back into Afghan politics. Credit Heidi Bradner/Associated Press

When Mr. Hekmatyar took the stage, he spoke for about 45 minutes, his speech often interrupted by chants of “Allah u Akbar” from his supporters, many of whom were seeing him for the first time in 20 years.

Mr. Hekmatyar is a skillful orator who has written dozens of books. His speech was a mix of pledges to end the war, advice for the political leaders sitting in front of him and explanations of how their coalition government was not working, and a call for the Taliban to join the peace process.

Mr. Hekmatyar also addressed accusations about past abuses, including accusations that his men had splashed acid on the faces of women who were active in public life. He said he did not disagree with women attending school or going to work. Officials said his wife and daughter were at the ceremony, almost unheard-of for his generation of warlords.

“Anyone who has sprayed acid on the faces of girls — goddamn them,” Mr. Hekmatyar said.

Mr. Hekmatyar appeared in eastern Afghanistan last week — his previous whereabouts have yet to be explained — and then drove to Kabul in a convoy of about 200 vehicles and hundreds of heavily armed men. Helicopters hovered above as the convoy entered the city, the streets along the route heavily guarded and cleared of even pedestrians, and made its way to a residence prepared for him in the west near the Afghan Parliament and Mr. Ghani’s residence.

Mr. Hekmatyar is not the only person with a controversial past to return to the political arena. Many of those attending Mr. Hekmatyar’s speech were part of factions in the civil war that have also been accused of atrocities, but they have sanitized their images over the last 15 years by siding with the United States and the government it supports here. Many have profited from billions of dollars in American aid and military spending that have poured into Afghanistan.

None of the factions involved in the civil war of the 1990s have apologized, calling it a legitimate struggle. The only faction leader who came close to an apology was Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who issued a letter expressing remorse for “all who have suffered on both sides of the wars” during the election campaign of 2013. He became vice president and is now accused of abducting, torturing and raping a political rival.

Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Hekmatyar’s return underlined the culture of impunity in Afghanistan.

“Hekmatyar is not alone in enjoying impunity; none of the Afghan warlords from the 1990s has been held accountable,” Ms. Gossman said. “As the war churns on, killing an ever-increasing number of civilians and driving desperate Afghans to join the flood of refugees fleeing to Europe, it’s clear how high a price Afghans have paid for appeasing the warlords.”

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Supporters of Mr. Hekmatyar at one of his speeches last month. Over the years, he fought beside and against almost every faction in Afghanistan. Credit Noorullah Shirzada/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Hekmatyar owes his rise to the fight against the Soviet Union and the communist-backed government in Kabul during the 1980s. His faction of guerrilla fighters received the bulk of arms and money funneled in by the C.I.A. to defeat the Soviets, because he was seen as ruthless and close to Pakistan, the conduit of the American proxy war.

In the 1990s, in the power vacuum in Kabul that arose after the fall of the communist government, Mr. Hekmatyar’s faction fought others for control of the government in a four-year war that left tens of thousands dead, millions displaced and the city in ruins. He and other factions were pushed out by the Taliban, who swept across the country, promising to end the anarchy. He first sought refuge in Iran, and then reportedly in Pakistan.

At the palace ceremony on Thursday, there were signs of a generational divide among Mr. Hekmatyar’s supporters about the past.

Hekmatullah Hekmat, 60, who joined Mr. Hekmatyar’s party in his 20s, said Mr. Hekmatyar’s actions in the 1990s were taken in self-defense as other guerrilla factions were refusing to accept his role in the government.

Sulaiman Mohmand, 30, said the party had to appeal to the new generation and leave behind what he called “the old songs” of the past.

“There were definitely mistakes made — my own father may have fired a rocket,” Mr. Mohmand said. “Mistakes continue to be made; it’s not just in the past. But we, the new generation, want to look to the future.”

To families of those who lost loved ones during the civil war, Mr. Hekmatyar’s return reopens old wounds. Allah Mohammed, 32, a carpet seller in Kabul, said one of Mr. Hekmatyar’s rockets had killed his brother, who left four young children behind.

“My hair stands when I remember those days — rockets would strike and people would fall down like sheep,” Mr. Mohammed said. “We want all these leaders to be punished and go through the judicial system. We did not see a good day during civil war; now he comes back?”

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