Afghan leaders feted the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul yesterday, praising their newfound brotherhood and desire for peace. Escorted by SUVs bristling with gunmen toting grenade launchers and machine guns, Hekmatyar’s convoy swept into the city as if bearing a returning hero, instead of a notorious exiled warlord and accused war criminal seeking to reclaim his former power.
Hekmatyar was allowed to return to Kabul as part of a proclaimed peace deal with his militant group, Hezb-i Islami. His return is a grim reminder of how Afghanistan’s militia leaders continue to seek more power while denying their victims justice.
Hekmatyar’s speech at the presidential palace on Thursday set off alarm bells. He criticized Afghanistan’s parliamentary system as being unsuited to Afghanistan. At a rally today he said the division of power in the National Unity Government was not “divinely ordained” nor provided for in the Afghan constitution (which he wants to change). He said he had come to rescue Afghanistan “from crisis.”
According to analyst Kate Clark, the deal with Hekmatyar had less to do with peace than with “the rehabilitation of his political career.” The same could be said for Afghanistan’s other warlords who reclaimed power and sought to sanitize their images after 2001.
Hekmatyar rejected accusations that members of his party had attacked women with acid, but said nothing about Hezb-i Islami’s attacks on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with Afghan women in the refugee camps in Pakistan. Yet Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses – including death threats – against relief workers and journalists, and we know Hezb-i Islami maintained a prison in Shamshatoo refugee camp where political rivals, including Afghans working for NGOs, were tortured.
In yesterday’s speech, Hekmatyar urged Afghan media outlets to “respect national values,” and while saying he was not against freedom of speech, he has warned them against lying. During an earlier speech on April 30, he had been blunter, saying: “Close the mouth of vicious media as they motivate terrorists.”
In a second speech today, he called for an end to the war, noting that “in every province there are mass graves.” He’s right – some of them contain the remains of civilians killed by his relentless shelling of Kabul, or those tortured and murdered by his militia. For their families, Hekmatyar’s return brings no peace, and the continuing impunity it represents heralds no new beginning for Afghanistan.