(Bloomberg) -- In making peace with one of Afghanistan’s most infamous warlords and a U.S.-designated terrorist, President Ashraf Ghani is hoping to edge the Taliban closer to the negotiating table in a bid to end its 15-year conflict.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami signed a peace deal with the government on Thursday amid condemnation from rights groups and as hundreds protested in the streets of the capital, Kabul. Once a Central Intelligence Agency-favored warlord who battled Soviet forces, Hekmatyar, 69, became notorious during the country’s ruthless civil war in the early 1990s and later as an anti-U.S. insurgent operating from hideouts along the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Ghani is keen to use the deal as an olive branch to the Taliban. After the signing, Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s chief executive officer, called on the militant group to “pick peace over violence and secure a better future for themselves.”
The U.S. State Department welcomed the pact, saying the “only avenue to achieve lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan is through dialogue and negotiations."
The 15-year war against the Taliban has cost the U.S. more than $700 billion and is straining Afghanistan’s $20 billion economy, where per capita incomes have fallen since 2012. In July, U.S. President Barack Obama slowed a troop withdrawal plan as violence across the country rose.
Hekmatyar’s militants are responsible for carrying out major attacks, including the 2013 suicide bombing on a U.S. convoy, which killed six Americans, and an assassination attempt on former President Hamid Karzai in the early 2000s. Still, his force of at least 1,000 fighters aren’t as powerful as other groups in the country.
“Hekmatyar’s group hasn’t been very active,” said Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst in Kabul. “Its inactivity undermined its strength, which brings no major change in peace, but the deal can serve as a model to encourage others, such as the Taliban, to lay down arms.”
‘Culture of Impunity’
Hezb-e-Islami’s commitment to a cease-fire and dismantling of its military wing paves the way for Hekmatyar’s return to the capital for the first time since the Taliban’s victory over Afghanistan’s warlords in 1996.
In exchange, Ghani’s government will offer judicial protection, a release of the group’s prisoners and will consult with the U.S. and United Nations to remove sanctions and a terrorist designation in place since 2003. The deal also allows Hekmatyar to undertake political activities. The U.S. statement didn’t refer to those conditions.
The pact, which Human Rights Watch said will compound Afghanistan’s “culture of impunity,” gives no comfort to those who feel that many of the nation’s problems are due to a failure to bring people to justice for past crimes, said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at The Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, in London.
“But I guess that’s put to one side in the hope that it can demonstrate to the Taliban leadership that the government is open to negotiation and long-standing enemies can be brought onside,” he said.
The deal is the latest twist for Hekmatyar’s ethnic-Pashtun Sunni fundamentalist group, which was one of the principle recipients of covert U.S. funding as it battled the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The CIA funneled as much as $3 billion to support the mujaheddin, of which $600 million went to Hekmatyar, according to Peter Bergen, who wrote ‘Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden.’
After the Soviet withdrawal, Hekmatyar launched a violent campaign to capture Kabul. His group is accused of indiscriminately killing thousands as they shelled the capital and clashed with other mujaheddin leaders, including ethnic-Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who also fought the Soviets and Taliban before his assassination in 2001.
Hekmatyar fled to Iran after the Taliban came to power. He was eventually expelled for condemning the American invasion of Afghanistan and Karzai’s administration, which Iran backed. With a history of breaking alliances and peace deals, Hekmatyar rebuilt his power base and attacked the government and its allies, while building on-off ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Many see Hekmatyar as “an aggressive, distrusted and destructive politician” leading to questions whether the peace deal will last, said Jawid Kohistani, a former army official and political analyst in Kabul.
“We want this war criminal prosecuted rather than giving him a concession in the government,” said Nabil Ahmad, a protester in Kabul carrying a huge blood-stained photograph of Hekmatyar. “We still remember how he destroyed Kabul and killed our countrymen.”