This photo taken in October 2001 shows Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Tehran. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

The Afghan government on Thursday signed a long-anticipated peace deal with the political party led by fugitive Islamist militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, hoping it will help restore stability to the country and bring one of its most notorious warlords into the political mainstream.

But domestic and international rights groups called the agreement an insult to the victims of Hekmatyar, 69, a ruthless leader whose rockets destroyed much of Kabul during the civil war of the early 1990s. He has been designated a “global terrorist” by the United States and blacklisted by the United Nations since 2003, which prevents him from returning publicly to Afghanistan.

The agreement followed months of negotiations and has been personally championed by President Ashraf Ghani, who did not attend the ceremony. It was signed by his national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, and the head of the government’s High Peace Council. It was signed on Hekmatyar’s behalf by a delegation of leaders from his Hezb-i-
Islami party.

“We urge others to adopt the path of understanding like Hezb-i-Islami,” said Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, who heads the council formed to promote peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The U.S. Embassy, without mentioning Hekmatyar’s terrorist status, issued a statement welcoming the accord “as a step in bringing the conflict in Afghanistan to a peaceful end.” It said the U.S. government supports an ­“Afghan-led” peace process that results in “armed groups ceasing violence,” breaking ties with international terrorist groups and accepting the Afghan constitution.

Although members of Hezb-i-Islami’s political faction hold senior positions in the Ghani government and in parliament, Hekmatyar and his armed followers have remained part of the panoply
of Islamist militant insurgents, which is dominated by the Taliban. They have been actively fighting the Afghan government since 2002, at times in alliance with al-Qaeda.

The key premises of the agreement are that it would pave the way for Hekmatyar to come in from the cold after nearly 20 years living underground in Pakistan and Iran, and that he would shift from being a provocative factor to being a calming one at a time when Afghanistan is racked by insurgent violence and political disputes. A preliminary accord was signed in May.

“It makes a difference if even one person joins the peace process, let alone an important leader like Hekmatyar,” said Farouq Bashar, a political analyst in ­Kabul. “He has huge influence in many parts of the country and has tens of thousands of supporters.”

However, analysts are divided on whether his return would have any significant impact on the Taliban and its violent designs on power, especially after a period of significant territorial advances by the insurgents, aggressive fighting in scattered parts of the country major attacks on the capital. Attempts at peace talks with the Taliban have broken down repeatedly. They have been totally stalled for more than a year.

“Hekmatyar is like the sharp edge of a fallen sword, both a liability and an asset,” said Timor Sharan, the Afghan representative for the nonprofit International Crisis Group. “The Afghan government is trying to show the Taliban and other groups that peace can be achieved and this is the only way forward. But the deal will have little impact on the conflict and intensify tensions among old rivals who already control the Afghan state.”

Moreover, Hekmatyar is a hated and feared figure for many Afghans, who would find it hard to accept his return to public life. The agreement includes provisions that would essentially pardon him for past abuses, including reported torture of detained opponents, assassinations and massive destruction caused by shelling from his militia stronghold outside Kabul during the civil war.

While the agreement was being signed in the Afghan capital Thursday, a group of protesters gathered in downtown Kabul, holding posters that depicted Hekmatyar with blood and rockets coming from his face. The posters read: “We will never forgive the executioner of Kabul.”

In a statement, the Western-based rights group Human Rights Watch called the deal “an affront” to Hekmatyar’s victims and said his return to Afghanistan would “compound the culture of impunity” created by Afghan officials and foreign donors who have failed to press for justice against numerous ex-warlords.

Adding to the bitter taste of Hekmatyar’s potential rehabilitation, critics said, is the fact that the deal will allow the release of all prisoners from his militia, permit his supporters to run for office and provide up to several million dollars for their security, housing and vehicles.

Among those opposed to the agreement is Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s chief executive and Ghani’s partner in a unity government. Abdullah is strongly allied with powerful ethnic Tajik leaders, who worry that bringing Hekmatyar into the equation would add another ethnic Pashtun strongman to the tenuous political balance.

A return by the Hezb-i-Islami leader to Afghanistan’s public life would cap a vertiginous career that followed the twists of U.S. foreign policy and Afghanistan’s internal conflicts. After the
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Hekmatyar became one of Washington’s most-favored champions of the armed resistance. After the war ended, he served briefly twice as prime minister, but also turned violently against the government. He has been a wanted international fugitive since 1997.

Under the deal signed Thursday, Afghan officials agreed to press to have him removed from the international terror lists. They did not agree to Hekmatyar’s other major demand, which was that all foreign troops be withdrawn from the country.

Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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