Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar speaks to supporters in Laghman province. (Parwiz/Reuters)

Fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on Saturday made his first public appearance in Afghanistan after nearly two decades underground, calling on Taliban insurgents to “join the peace caravan and stop this pointless holy war.” He also urged all political parties to reconcile and seek change “without bloodshed.” 

The return of Hekmatyar, 69, who spoke at an outdoor ceremony in a government compound in Laghman province, represented a sorely needed success for the beleaguered government of President Ashraf Ghani, who invited him to return home peacefully last fall in hopes it would encourage the Taliban to follow suit.

A brief statement from the presidential palace said Ghani “welcomes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return to Afghanistan as a result of the Afghan-led peace process. The deal shows that Afghans have the capacity to resolve the conflict through dialogue.”

But Hekmatyar’s homecoming was fraught with tension, and his ­expected arrival in Kabul was ­delayed by disputes over the ­release of prisoners from his former antigovernment militia. Also, his remarks had a strong anti-Western theme and were critical of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban, which he compared to the Vietnam War and the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan.

“If you are working to help ­Afghanistan we are grateful, but if you are fighting here for your own political and economic interests, we ask you to stop using Afghanistan as your rivals’ battlefield and instead face each other directly,” Hekmatyar said to the gathering in Mehtarlam, the capital of Laghman. “Don’t test your ammunition on our oppressed people.”

Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar arrives to speak to supporters in Laghman province, Afghanistan. (Parwiz/Reuters)

Hekmatyar, long believed to be hiding in the rugged border region of Pakistan, was allowed to enter Afghanistan after the United Nations and the Obama administration, at Ghani’s request, lifted anti-terrorist bans on him. His entry followed months of negotiations over his rights, privileges and role in civilian life. He is traveling with numerous armed loyalists as he makes his way to the Afghan capital, being greeted by supporters from his Hezb-i-Islami party.

Despite his call for conciliation and harmony, which he also championed in a video speech in September that was shown at Ghani’s palace, the peace plan involving Hekmatyar has been denounced by the Taliban, who have condemned him as a criminal and a traitor to Islam. The Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami both fought the Kabul government, but they were never allies and sometimes fought over power in rural areas. 

Now, there are concerns that Hekmatyar’s presence in Kabul and other parts of the country could add another disruptive factor to an already volatile political situation. In Kabul, he is remembered as a brutal warlord who destroyed entire neighborhoods during the civil war of the 1990s, and later took up arms against civilian rulers.

His arrival coincided with ­“Mujahideen Victory Day” events marking the installation of ­anti-Soviet militias in power here in April 1992. As usual, the events were attended by hundreds of men in guerrilla-style garb, but this year the muscle-flexing and shouts of “Allah is great” were more than a ritual. 

The president, who held a separate ceremony in the palace, faces a crisis of infighting, pressure and defections by former militia leaders.

Ahmad Zia Massood, Ghani’s special adviser on governance and brother of slain anti-Taliban hero Ahmed Shah Massood, was just fired by Ghani after he threatened to quit and lead antigovernment protests. Abdurrashid Dostom, an Uzbek warlord and Ghani’s first vice president, is under virtual house arrest in Kabul as a result of charges that he beat and raped an elderly political rival in November, but supporters held rallies against the Ghani government in two provinces this weekend. 

Now, Hekmatyar is joining the mix of rogue ex-mujaheddin and militia leaders who all once fought each other, and reviving the political prospects for a once-banned Islamist party with many enemies and hundreds of war prisoners who may soon be released — all ostensibly to set an example for the Taliban. His aides said he plans a massive rally upon reaching Kabul in the next several days.

In his comments Saturday, Hekmatyar, who was white-bearded and wore a black turban, said he believed in peaceful changes of government but that Afghanistan needed a “strong central government” and would never accept an “imposed” one. He criticized Ghani’s government for its internal divisions, which have basically left the president estranged from his partner, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and vulnerable to outside pressure.

One leader who expressed concern about Hekmatyar’s impact was Mohammed Atta Noor, a powerful northern governor and former militia boss. In a speech read by his top aide at a Mujahideen Victory Day ceremony in the city of Mazar-e Sharif, Noor said he had welcomed the peace process but was worried that Hekmatyar’s men were being allowed to keep their weapons, which he said could “further complicate the situation, with unpleasant and risky consequences.”  

Under the agreement signed in the fall, Hekmatyar’s representatives agreed to accept the constitution, lay down their arms and work for peace. The government agreed to release Hizb prisoners who had not committed crimes, provide Hekmatyar with three residences, provide land for thousands of his supporters in exile and allow him to fully participate in politics.  

Sharif Walid and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.