KABUL — He is a ghost with a blood-soaked past, a man with so many enemies that even his closest aides, trying to orchestrate his return to the Afghan capital he once attacked, coyly insist they have no idea where he is.
Six months ago, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar emerged briefly from the shadows, appearing via video to sign a peace agreement with President Ashraf Ghani. The deal with the notorious fugitive warlord — whose rockets rained down on Kabul during the 1990s civil war — was touted as a breakthrough that could induce Taliban insurgents to follow suit.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council voted to lift terrorism-related sanctions against Hekmatyar, 69, partially clearing his way to return home and participate in politics. His aides here envision a grand entry into Kabul worthy of Alexander the Great, with caravans converging on the city from four directions, thousands of armed guards securing his path, and swarms of loyalists following from camps in Pakistan.
“The agreement has been made, and there will be no U-turn. He will come as a leader of the nation, and it will be a great help for peace. Big crowds will gather to welcome him, and their numbers will speak,” said Qariburrahman Saeed, a spokesman for Hekmatyar, whose advance team is operating from an elegant, heavily guarded mansion here.
But that prediction is beginning to look like a fantasy. Negotiations over the conditions of Hekmatyar’s return are at a standstill, and official enthusiasm is waning. Some analysts suggest that the immersion of such a polarizing figure in national politics, instead of helping to restore peace after 16 years of war, could aggravate the power struggles that are tearing the government apart.
Hekmatyar, known as a canny politician, brutal fighter and stern Islamist, has cut a dizzying path through successive Afghan conflicts. In the 1980s he headed an anti-Soviet militia sponsored by the CIA and Pakistan; after the Soviets withdrew, he became a transitional prime minister and then a destructive factional brawler in the civil strife that followed.
When the Taliban militia seized power in 1996, Hekmatyar went underground, moving between Pakistan and Iran. After the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, he declared war on the new civilian rulers in Kabul, sometimes fighting alongside Taliban insurgents. His political party, Hezb-i-Islami, was declared illegal, and the U.S. government designated it a terrorist group. Two efforts at reconciliation failed, and Hekmatyar has not been seen in public in two decades.
Ghani’s invitation to this invisible adversary was viewed here as a desperate move rather than a considered strategy. In principle, Hekmatyar agreed to disarm his forces, respect the Afghan constitution and re-enter political life; in return, the government offered him amnesty for wartime abuses, freedom to organize politically, and generous subsidies for his lifestyle and protection.
But months later, negotiators are far apart on most crucial details. Hekmatyar wants to bring his own security; the government wants its forces involved. He wants hundreds of prisoners from his former militia released; the government says only a fraction of them can be freed. He wants tens of thousands of his returning followers to be given land; the government says that is not feasible.
To many Afghans, including those who suffered through the siege of Kabul by Hezb-i-Islami and other warring militia factions, even Ghani’s original concessions seemed too generous, if not naive. Human rights groups especially condemned the amnesty for Hekmatyar and his commanders, who had garnered a reputation for exceptional cruelty over the course of three conflicts.
“The impunity granted him by the government and the removal of his name from the U.N. black list will give him and his party free rein to continue their crimes,” said Ubair Kabir, a member of the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, which held protests against the accord. “Justice cannot be sacrificed for peace.”
The negotiations also have been stymied by political divisions in both camps. Ghani’s power-sharing pact with his former opponent for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah, has deteriorated into an open feud. One of Hekmatyar’s former rival groups, Jamiat-i-Islami, is in the thick of the fight. His aides, while negotiating with Ghani, are trying to revive old alliances with leaders on both sides of that divide.
Hekmatyar’s party, too, has splintered into factions in the absence of its central leader. After Hezb-i-Islami was declared illegal, some members left to work for the government. Others stayed but pledged loyalty to various ex-militia commanders. Hekmatyar’s aides assert that once he returns, the membership will rally behind him, but so far they cannot even agree on whether he should return as a party leader, a presidential contender or a benign elder statesman.
“Hezb is very fragmented, and it’s all about personal interests. We don’t know whether these former commanders will unite around Hekmatyar or work against him,” said Timor Sharan, who represents the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Kabul. He noted that Hekmatyar is rumored to be ill.
“This is his last attempt to reach power, this time through elections,” Sharan said.
As Hekmatyar’s political rehabilitation bogs down, hopes are fading that his return might inspire the Taliban to reconcile with the government, too. One government adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly and thus spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “There is a feeling that things have failed. Excitement is down.”
Many Afghans argue that banking on Hekmatyar to influence the Taliban was unrealistic to begin with, given the insurgents’ increasing success on the battlefield and their denunciation of him as a criminal and traitor to Islam when the peace accord was announced. In some regions his forces have joined with the Taliban, but in others they have been competitors.
And although Hekmatyar remains popular in certain provinces, it is difficult to imagine him being welcomed back to the capital he once pounded with rockets. Well aware of this, his advisers in Kabul have been working to re-brand him as a thoughtful religious scholar and man of letters. Two weeks ago, they organized a conference here to showcase his writings, including more than 100 books, mainly on Islamic topics.
“For 30 years, people only heard the opposition propaganda about us,” said Kareem Amin, a longtime Hekmatyar adviser. “We are not intransigent warlords. We want to unify and rebuild Afghanistan.”
Although he said he was not in direct touch with Hekmatyar, Amin described him as “a man of wisdom and knowledge” who spends his time “reading and writing.” In the recent video, the aging warlord wore glasses and looked like a dignified elder.
But unless Hekmatyar ventures out of hiding and remakes himself as a man of peace, he is likely to remain lodged in the public imagination as the ruthless “butcher of Kabul” — a city where old buildings bear the scars of rocket fire from a quarter-century ago, and residents still describe cowering in their basements, cursing his name.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.