Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of Afghanistan’s most notorious war crimes suspects, who as prime minister in 1992 shelled his own capital, is coming home after decades in exile, thanks to a peace deal with the national unity government. 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 victims of forces commanded by Hekmatyar and other warlords that laid waste to much of the country in the 1990s.
The peace negotiations focused on Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami faction renouncing ties to extremist groups and acts of terrorism in exchange for immunity for acts committed during the war and the removal of his name and that of his faction from terrorism blacklists. However, many Afghans know Hekmatyar for his indiscriminate rocketing and shelling of Kabul in the early 1990s. At that time, Hekmatyar—who had been named prime minister in 1992 in an attempt to gain his support for the fragile coalition government--directly oversaw senior commanders responsible for the rocketing. While other factions fighting for control of Kabul were also horrific Hekmatyar bears responsibility for some of the most egregious incidents, including barrages in August 1992 that killed at least 1,000 people and wounded 8,000, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
A resident described what it was like to be in Kabul then:
"Hekmatyar [forces] would rocket civilian areas all the time. One time, in the summer of 1992 … I was waiting for a bus. A poor old man had a little cart and was selling chocolate and peanuts ... I was getting on the bus, and suddenly, a rocket hit, where I had been. That man disappeared completely… I think that 20 other people died there, and many more were wounded."
Hekmatyar is also linked to serious human rights abuses, including the forced disappearances of political opponents and an underground prison in Pakistan where torture was routine. Bolstered by US military aid funneled through Pakistan in the 1980s, Hekmatyar extended his reach to include targeted assassinations of Afghan intellectuals in Pakistan and violent attacks on nongovernmental organizations that ran education and health programs for Afghan women in refugee camps in Pakistan.
Hekmatyar is not alone in enjoying impunity. None of the Afghan warlords from the 1990s has been held accountable. That, and the failed disarmament of abusive militias, have crippled reforms needed to build effective government institutions crucial for a lasting peace. As the war churns on, killing an ever-increasing number of civilians, and driving desperate Afghans to join the flood of refugees fleeing to Europe, it’s clear how high a price Afghans have paid for appeasing the warlords.