KABUL — The United Nations has removed a longtime Afghan insurgent leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, from its sanctions list, in a move to allow a peace deal between the beleaguered Afghan government and the fugitive to go forward.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government had requested the dropping of Hekmatyar’s name last year after signing the deal, regarded by some as historic because it was the first of its kind without foreign mediation.
Hekmatyar is expected to return to Kabul within weeks, putting an end to his nearly four decades of military campaigning, which involved fighting the Soviets, Afghan opponents in the civil war and the current U.S.-led occupation.
The Afghan government is pushing to fulfill its two other main commitments with Hekmatyar: release of nearly 500 fighters and commanders of his Hezb-i-Islami party and the return of hundreds of families of the party’s members who live as refugees in Pakistan.
The U.N. move unfreezes his assets and lifts a travel ban.
Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, a senior adviser to Ghani, said a joint commission was assessing the number of Hekmatyar’s fighters and the amount of weapons they own across the country, before reintegrating them.
He said Hezb fighters had been “observing a truce” since the peace deal was signed in late September.
“We have seen a total drop in areas under their control,” Khpalwak said in a brief interview.
These areas included Maidan-Wardak in the western outskirts of Kabul and Bagram to its north, close to where the U.S. military base is located, he said.
Khpalwak said routine and indirect contacts with the Taliban have been underway for some time, in an effort to bring them in from the cold, too, but with no tangible result so far.
The Taliban militants who have gained some ground on the battlefield are pushing for total withdrawal of all foreign troops led by the U.S. military.
The Taliban has termed Hekmatyar’s peace deal with Ghani an act of treason.
The United States, Britain and some other Western nations hailed the signing of the deal with Hekmatyar, who is in his late 60s and was once the main recipient of U.S. aid during the war against the Soviets.
He earned the nickname “Rocketyar” (companion of rocket) among some people in Kabul because of indiscriminate shelling of the capital when he, along with other factions, fought for its control in the 1990s.
The delisting of his name has drawn anger among his critics and the war victims.
Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher of Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, termed the removal of his name as a failure by the government to insist on accountability rather than accommodating powerful factional leaders.
“His return will compound the culture of impunity that the Afghan government and its foreign donors have fostered by not pursuing accountability for the many war crimes committed by forces commanded by Hekmatyar and other warlords,” she said in a message.
“Afghans have paid a high price for appeasing the warlords.”
In the past 15 years, most of Hekmatyar’s key aides have parted ways with the once-reclusive man, who is known by some for making and breaking deals. They serve as senior government officials while hundreds of his former foot soldiers bolstered the Taliban ranks.
With affiliates of the Islamic State gaining ground in some areas of Afghanistan and the Taliban becoming stronger, Hekmatyar largely felt isolated and irrevalent, said Najib Mahmoud, a professor of political science at Kabul University.
“He is not an effective political and military force, and the expiry date has elapsed because his military might has been dissolved or melted away during the protracted war,” Mahmoud said in a recent interview.
“By bringing him over, the government wants to show that it has an achievement of some sort to say it has brought peace in one part of the country and use this as media propaganda for some days.”