By Naveed Hussain
May 7, 2017
It’s the ’90s. Afghanistan is caught up in a bitter civil war. The seven ‘Jihadi’ factions that drove the Soviets out of their country are now embroiled in deadly infighting for the spoils of war. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the chief of Hizb-e-Islami party, is the key figure whiplashing the spiral of violence. His fighters are entrenched on the strategic hills overlooking Kabul, from where they fire barrage after barrage of rockets at the capital, flattening one-third of the city’s neighbourhoods. Kabul lies in ruins. And its residents are living a nightmare.
The wanton death and destruction forces President Burhanuddin Rabbani to name Hekmatyar the prime minister in 1993. Nonetheless, the brutal warlord refuses to vacate his strategic base on the hilltops and shift to the Prime Minister’s House. He only comes to the capital escorted by truckloads of his ferocious fighters to preside over cabinet meetings. And if a meeting doesn’t go well, he goes back to his base to unleash a fresh salvo of rockets on the capital. The siege continues till 1996. An estimated 50,000 lives — mostly civilians — are lost. Countless others are maimed for life. The bloodletting earns Hekmatyar the moniker of ‘Butcher of Kabul’. After the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, he goes into hiding to lead his fighters in a deadly insurgency for the next two decades.
Future fast-forward. It’s May 4, 2017. Hekmatyar, now 69, triumphantly returns to a hero’s welcome in Kabul, the city he and his merry men had once reduced to rubble. Gun- and grenade-totting fighters are escorting Hekmatyar in a huge convoy of cars, pickup trucks and SUVs, while military helicopters are flying overhead. The notorious warlord of yesteryear is flanked by President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former president Hamid Karzai as he struts the red carpet at the Presidential Palace during a welcome ceremony. Ghani and Abdullah are beaming with joy. Hekmatyar, the leader of Afghanistan’s second biggest militant faction, has “heeded the peace call”. And for Ghani, this is no mean achievement. At the ceremony, Hekmatyar urges other insurgents, particularly the Taliban, to renounce violence and join the “caravan of peace”.
The next day, he makes an impressive public appearance at Kabul’s Ghazi football stadium which is full to capacity. His cheering supporters, out in massive numbers, have turned up to see and listen to Hekmatyar after 20 years. The ageing warlord appears to have no regrets. He proudly speaks about the ‘bravery’ of his comrades-in-arms, though now he is “willing to work with everyone for reaching the sacred goal of peace”.
Some analysts believe Hekmatyar’s acquiescence to give up violence and submit to Afghanistan’s constitution is a turning point. For them, the development has raised hopes that Ghani can win over more enemies — and eventually quell the festering conflict. Sceptics, however, say it’s a vain hope.
They believe Hekmatyar is a toothless wolf now, unable to prey. And his pack already dwindled. Hekmatyar’s renunciation of violence is unlikely to end the spiral of violence because it’s the Taliban who hold the key to peace. Conversely, fears abound that Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun, might fuel simmering tensions in the ethnically polarised Afghan society. And this will only compound problems for the fractured national unity government which is already grappling with economic, political and security challenges.
This debate aside, one thing is clear: Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul has brought back bitter memories for the residents of the city who he had tormented for four long years. For thousands of Afghans who had lost their dear-ones in Hekmatyar’s rocket blitzes, the pompous homecoming of the ‘Butcher of Kabul’ has only added insult to injury. Hekmatyar — once a UN-designated global terrorist — is accused of numerous atrocities and crimes against humanity. And retributive justice demands he doesn’t get away with this.