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What does the return of warlord Hekmatyar mean for Afghanistan?

The UN has removed Afghan warlord Hekmatyar from a sanctions list targeting Islamist fighters. DW examines the impact it is likely to have on Afghan politics and a protracted Islamist insurgency in the war-torn country.

On Saturday, February 4, the UN Security Council lifted sanctions against former premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, including a freeze that had been put on his assets, a comprehensive travel ban, and an arms embargo.

Hekmatyar, the leader of the Islamist organization Hezb-i-Islami, had occasionally collaborated with al Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, despite disagreements among the various groups.

The decision to remove Hekmatyar from the sanctions list followed a peace agreement with the Afghan government signed in September 2016 which included a formal request by the government to remove the names of Hezb-i-Islami leaders from the list.

Hekmatyar's chief negotiator, Amin Karim, told the Associated Press news agency that the warlord would return to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in "a matter of weeks, not months." He is believed to be currently hiding in the eastern Kunar province, where he enjoys popular support.

"More fighting will result in more bloodshed, and that is why all members of the Hezb-i-Islami party are eager to participate in the peace process," Karim told DW, adding that the Taliban insurgents, too, should enter peace talks.

Hekmatyar's return to the capital could herald new political uncertainty as the Afghan government continues to struggle against the Taliban's reinvigorated campaign. He is also regarded as a potential political rival to President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who have been governing the country since the disputed elections of 2014 as part of a US-brokered power-sharing agreement.

Cautious optimism

The lifting of sanctions by the UN has triggered mixed responses in Afghanistan.

"The UN decision to remove Hekmatyar from its blacklist gives Afghans hope because they have grown tired of war and desperately want peace. This decision could also motivate the Taliban to sign a peace deal with the Afghan government," Jabran Lawran, an Afghan journalist, told DW.

Afghanistan Gespräche High Peace Council & Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/H. Sabawoon)

Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council praised the deal as a step towards peace

Mohammad Zaher, a Kabul resident, also believes the UN decision will strengthen the Afghan peace process.

"I believe that Hekmatyar can facilitate the peace process. It is a positive move," Zaher told DW.

But some Afghans are skeptical about Hekmatyar's imminent return to the political arena.

"The Afghans have not forgotten the atrocities carried out by Hekmatyar and his group," said Samira Rasa, a Kabul resident.

Dubious role

The Afghan government signed a peace deal with Hekmatyar in September 2016, hoping to advance the country's halted peace process.

Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council (HPC), the body tasked with forging reconciliation with the Taliban and other armed groups, praised the deal as a step towards peace. A member of the HPC said the deal could pave the way for other militant groups like the Taliban to join the government.

But not everyone in the war-torn country is optimistic. Many argue that Hekmatyar's party is already too involved in the government, and the deal is only a symbolic move to integrate the leader of the group into Afghan politics.

This seems to be an accurate observation, as most members of Hezb-i-Islami are either in the government as ministers and other high-ranking officials or already living in Afghanistan as politically active citizens.

The reason why Hezb-i-Islami is both in the government and posing as an armed opponent group, according to Afghan analyst Wahid Muzhdah, is because the party has been trying to reconcile with the Western-backed Afghan government for many years.

Symbolbild Terrorismus Afghanistan (Getty Images/AFP/N. Shirzada)

Can Hekmatyar motivate the Taliban to enter peace talks with the Afghan government?

"Hezb-i-Islami sent delegations to meet with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government at least 16 times," Muzhdah said, adding that each time Karzai would ask the members of the delegation to stay in Kabul and would provide them with cars, homes and security.

"This isolated Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to a very large extent. This is why he agreed to come to the capital, Kabul, or another Afghan province," Muzhdah told DW.

Like Muzhdah, many others in the South Asian country believe that Hekmatyar is joining the peace process only to attempt to take absolute control of his party, which has had a strong support base among Pashto-speaking Afghans during the country's war against the former Soviet Union and later during Afghanistan's civil war.

But the analyst said it would be very difficult for Hekmatyar to take back control of his party, as many Hezb-i-Islami members are affiliated with different groups in Afghanistan and bringing them back together would require a lot of time and resources.

On top of that, some Hezb-i-Islami members have registered a new party in Afghanistan and have distanced themselves from the former warlord for years.

Negotiating from a weak position

President Ghani's National Unity Government is under pressure for failing to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban or with other armed groups. Efforts by Afghanistan to reconcile with the Taliban with Pakistan's involvement seem to have hit a dead end, with Kabul blaming Islamabad of not fulfilling its promises.

Ashraf Ghani im Interview für DW (DW)

President Ghani is facing major internal challenges

On the other hand, President Ghani is facing major internal challenges. The government's approval rating has been decreasing, and the Taliban's insurgency seems bloodier than ever.

A major anti-government protest in Kabul in May last year highlighted the fragile political situation in the country and the decline in support for Ghani's administration among Afghans.

This is why experts believe Ghani wants to strengthen his support among Pashtuns who supported Hekmatyar during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990's.

"Hekmatyar still has a lot of support among people all over Afghanistan, and his union with the government can bring a lot of new people to their side," Faiz Mohammad Zaland, a lecturer at Kabul University, told DW.

Also, Hekmatyar's close ties with Pakistan could also help improve Kabul's tense relations with Islamabad. At the same time, some experts warn that the Afghan government should be cautious about Pakistan's increased role in Afghan politics. Both Kabul and Washington maintain that Pakistan backs the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan to keep the Afghan government under pressure.