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After a lapse of 20 years, former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul on Thursday. His return was met with a mixture of uneasiness and welcome since many still have memories of him as the “Butcher of Kabul” or “Rocketyar”. The former premier returned to mainstream politics after his outfit, Hezb-i-Islami cracked a peace deal with the National Unity Government (NUG).

The highly-touted hardliner arrived in the capital in a cavalcade of several hundred vehicles under the protection of the Afghan Army.

The government has worked assiduously the past year to bring him back into the fold. In February the United Nations Security Council dropped sanctions against him upon the request of the Afghan government.  He was also removed from the list of designated terrorists. Besides, the government reintegrated him by granting judicial immunity for past crimes. These were all Hekmatyar’s direct demands for coming back to Kabul.

Earlier in a statement released by Ghani’s office, the deal was termed as a landmark. “Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return will have remarkable effects on peace, stability, prosperity and development in all aspects,” a spokesman for the president’s office said.

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Deeming the deal as a victory President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Hekmatyar in his palace. ”Few people believed that peace efforts would bear fruit, but today it is clear that if there is sincere will and effort for peace it can be achieved,” he said.

“I invite you to join the peace caravan and stop the pointless, meaningless and unholy war,” he said in a gathering of supporters in the east of Kabul.

The worsening security of the country has necessitated the start of a peace initiative with different warlords in a hope to end fighting and Hekmatyar’s Pashtun background made him an important one to be convinced and encouraged.

Speaking on the occasion Hekmatyar called Taliban as his brothers and reiterated his recent desire for them to also to renounce the use of force.  This could well be called as an attempt to woo the Taliban by a soft message.

Hekmatyar has urged an end to war and conflict. In his first public address in 20 years, the firebrand Pashtun warlord called upon all factions including the Taliban to unite in efforts for peace and reconciliation.

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“I invite you to join the peace caravan and stop the pointless, meaningless and unholy war,” he said in a gathering of supporters in the east of Kabul.

Many factors may have encouraged the warlord to return into mainstream politics. An unstable government seemingly could give him political breathing space and a chance to reinvigorate his party now that he has signed a truce. This could be a tactical step till he gains enough support ahead of the next elections in 2019.

Is he a divisive force?

Despite optimism from the Afghan government, the re-entrance of the once-notorious leader is being seen with skepticism and fear. While his supporters sang choruses in Pashtu, onlookers recalled his role in the civil war in the 1990s. Hekmatyar is considered the man behind the rocket blitzkrieg in the capital some twenty years. However, needless to say, the Afghans are tired of war; and they want an end to it by any means and anyone. Many have welcomed his return and hoped that this will be the precursor to peace and stability in Afghanistan.

A weak Gulbadin Hekmatyar on behest of an uninspiring fighting and political force will find it hard to cajole the Taliban to come to the negotiating tables.

Western governments welcomed the deal and hoped that this would lead to wider peace in Afghanistan.

However, the return of the Pashtun warlord has been chastised by human rights organizations. Pardoning his role in the wreckage of Kabul and other human rights abuses deemed an insult to his victims. It is a common perception that the ruckus that was caused by Hekmatyar compelled many to welcome the Taliban in the 1990s.

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On the other hand, a weak Hezb-i-Islamia and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; as an uninspiring fighting and political force will find it hard to cajole the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The Afghan Taliban are controlling swathes of territory; they are attacking across the country with impunity and brazenness. At a time when the Taliban considers the government on the back foot, it is difficult to hope that they would listen to Hekmatyar.

Analysts worry that Hekmatyar could dent an already tenuous political coalition and further aggravate ethnic divisions. The Tajiks under the tutelage of Ahmed Zia feel marginalized and hence they could form a force to fight a tough battle in the next elections along ethnic grounds. The Uzbeks led by Rashid Dostum are disenchanted with Ghani’s non-fulfillment of promises. Besides, there are other groups that are dissatisfied with the government, to include Hazaras.

With Hekmatyar’s ethnic background and a vociferous support for a strong central government will be a cause of resentment amongst other main ethnic groups in the country.

The government’s new appeasement policies with Hekmatyar would not go down well with the Shia Hazaras. His remarks about Hazaras not finding shelter in the country three years ago will further alienate the community, causing deep fragmentation.

With Hekmatyar’s ethnic background and his vociferous support for a strong central government, it may be a possible cause for resentment amongst other main ethnic groups in the country. Many believe that the next elections will not only see a tough power scuffle but also a post-election battle. If the vision of a united Hezb-i-Islami is materialized then the Pashtun leader may very well go on to become a real challenger in the 2019 elections. Hence, it remains to be seen if the return of the former prime minister is a boon or whether it would lead to further rifts between various groups; the probability of the latter looks more given the current fissures in the political scaffold of current Afghanistan.

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