The warlord, the video and the peace deal

The leader of Afghanistan's second largest armed opposition movement was not in the room to sign the peace agreement, the first since 2001.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar still remains on a US State Department global terrorist list.

On Thursday morning dozens of Afghanistan’s leading political figures, including current President Ashraf Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai, sat in front of a video screen at the presidential palace.

They had gathered in a grand hall to officially sign a historic peace agreement with the leader of the nation’s second-largest armed opposition movement, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Except he wasn't there.

After more than two years of negotiations between Hekmatyar's movement, Hezb-e-Islami, and Afghanistan's national unity government, the former warlord did not appear in person to sign the pact. Instead, he delivered a speech about the importance of peace through a video link from an as yet undisclosed location.

"I pray that our country be independent and sovereign, and our innocent and war-weary nation end the fighting … that unity prevails," Hekmatyar said before Afghanistan's leaders watched him signing the agreement through the video screen.

Hekmatyar went on to call on other armed factions to join in Afghan-led peace negotiations, the first since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

In recent years, the Taliban have regrouped to become the nation's largest armed opposition movement.

In a bid to appeal to the remaining armed opposition groups, including the Taliban, Hekmatyar said that no foreign country was involved in the negotiations between Kabul and Hezb-e-Islami. He also stated that the agreement was only reached after more than 90 per cent of foreign forces had already withdrawn from the nation.

"War is not the way out, we can reach our political goals through peace," he said. 

Ghani also used the event to call on the Taliban to lay down their arms.

"Now is the time for the Taliban to think about whether they want to continue the war or come for peace."

Hekmatyar is one of several former anti-Soviet leaders accused of rights abuses and war crimes for his part in the civil war that followed the breakdown of Afghanistan’s communist government in 1992.

During the course of the civil war — which raged from 1992 to 1996 — Hekmatyar and other anti-Soviet commanders fought for control of Kabul. Those battles led to thousands of civilian deaths and the destruction of the capital.

Other former commanders laid down their arms after the US-led invasion of 2001 and joined the government. They were given impunity after parliament passed a bill in 2007 — which many former mujahideen leaders campaigned in favour of — offering an amnesty to anyone involved in fighting prior to 2001.

Hekmatyar never joined them in disarming and turned his wing of Hezb-e-Islami into an armed opposition group that claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks on Afghan and international forces. In 2003, the United States, who had backed Hekmatyar (along with other anti-Soviet commanders) during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, placed Hekmatyar on the State Department's Specially Designated Global Terrorist list.

Though the armed wing of Hezb-e-Islami has been seen as wielding little power in recent years, the national unity government headed by President Ghani has spent much of the last two years negotiating a peace deal with Hekmatyar.

As part of the deal Hekmatyar and his men have been offered a similar amnesty to the one passed in 2007. They will also be provided with financial assistance and security by the government. In addition, the pact stipulates that Afghanistan will call for Hezb-e-Islami and Hekmatyar himself to be removed from the blacklists of the United Nations and the United States.