An image of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is displayed on a video projector screen at the presidential palace in Kabul as he signs a peace deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from an undisclosed location. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

It was both a historic moment and a bizarre spectacle. There was the fugitive Afghan militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with a black turban and a beard much whiter than anyone remembered, speaking Thursday via video link from a secret location and then signing a peace agreement as the camera zoomed in on his hands.

There was President Ashraf Ghani, dressed in traditional robes and a yellow turban, beaming as he watched the images on a giant screen in his palace and then ceremonially signed his copy of the accord, which he said would go “fully in force” immediately. “This day starts the subsiding of war in Afghanistan and the beginning of rebuilding it,” he said, speaking in Dari.

Seated behind him were aging former mujahideen leaders — including allies and enemies of Hekmatyar’s — who fought the Soviet Union and then one another in a civil war three decades ago. Some looked uncomfortable; others periodically shouted “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase meaning “God is great”; and many applauded when one speaker called Hekmatyar the “shining star” of the anti-Soviet jihad.

Making his first public appearance in years, Hekmatyar, who is in his late 60s, was soft-spoken and statesmanlike but vague on details. He said he hoped the agreement would “bring an end to the crisis in this country” and that “no single bullet will be fired, no drop of blood shed” in the transition of power. “I ask all opponents of this government to join this process and pursue their goals through peaceful ways,” he said. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signs a peace agreement with Hizb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Hekmatyar, who has been in hiding for years, did not mention whether and when he would return to Afghanistan, which would require his removal from international terrorist blacklists. But his public appearance seemed to put to rest rumors about whether he actually supported the deal, and his conciliatory rhetoric appeared likely to bolster Ghani’s credibility as a peacemaker as he heads to a crucial conference of foreign donors in Brussels on Tuesday. Ghani and his aides have been negotiating for months with Hekmatyar’s representatives, hoping to persuade Taliban insurgent leaders to lay down their weapons.

“The current generation of Afghans did not start this war. It is up to our older generation to finish it,” Ghani said at the ceremony, using the term “excellency” to address Hekmatyar and some of the assembled former fighters, who are now influential elders or officials. “This is a grand jihad that Afghanistan desperately needs.”

But the flowery words and ritual did not impress members of the Mehrabi family, who were watching the event from their modest home several miles away. In 1993, at the peak of the civil war, Zarghona Mehrabi was in labor with her first child when the rockets came, whistling and exploding among the mud-walled houses in their west Kabul neighborhood. 

The shelling came from the south, where Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami fighters were camped and waging a ferocious street battle with other militias. Mehrabi delivered her baby in the basement, listening to the sounds until night fell and her husband — since deceased — could get them to safety in another part of the city.

“When the war was over, we went back and found our house. Only the foundations were left,” said brother-in-law Madat Ali, 55, a retired police officer. “Hekmatyar made soft promises today, but we have no hope for this agreement,” he said. During the civil war, Hekmatyar and other militia bosses “swore on the Koran that they would stop fighting, and a few days later they started again,” Ali recounted. “How can we trust him now?”

Last week, after government officials signed a preliminary agreement with Hekmatyar’s representatives, other longtime Kabul residents responded with a mixture of skepticism and weary hope. Many told similar stories of fleeing bombardment, spending years as refugees, and returning after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 to find the city in ruins and many of the same brutal militia leaders enjoying positions of wealth and political power. 

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar spoke via video link from an undisclosed location as he signed a peace deal with the Afghan government. Former mujahideen leaders were among those in the presidential palace to watch him speak. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

A few activists have openly protested the agreement, denouncing Hekmatyar as the “Butcher of Kabul” and calling it an insult to justice for officials to pardon a wanted terrorist who has continued to fight against the government while living in Pakistan and Iran. Other analysts worry that his return could revive old ethnic enmities rather than calming the political waters and serving as an example for the Taliban

“This is not a peace deal. It is just completing the circle of criminals in our government,” said Obaid Kabir, a rights activist. “Now the other warlords are pretending to favor the deal, but they have an old history of dogfights, and they will start them again.”

But Hezb-i-Islami, like most of the other Islamist parties that once fought one another, has many officials in the Ghani government and representatives in parliament. Supporters say these militia groups have changed with the times, prospered under civilian rule and now have a stake in peace instead of conflict.

“Gulbuddin is a charismatic leader who knows how to swim in Afghan politics,” said Farooq Wardak, a senior Hezb-i-Islami leader and former education minister. “If he comes back, many Taliban supporters will join him, and the other mujahideen parties will have to accommodate him. They have made a lot of money, and they want to protect their property now. They don’t want to see Kabul destroyed again.”