Kabul- Hezb-e Islami (Islamic political party) leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar entered the Afghan presidential palace for the first time after 20 years of hiding when backing extremist groups fighting the Western-backed Afghan government. Prominent Afghan figures, such as President Ashraf Ghani welcomed him at his historic return.
But the meeting was missed by key Islamic figures such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Hekmatyar, a former prime minister, has returned to mainstream political life after Hezb-e Islami party signed a peace deal with Ghani.
In his first official speech, Hekmatyar addressed public issues and said he wanted to turn over a new page with everyone, that the past must be forgotten, and that inclusive reconstruction and reconciliation should prevail.
Hekmatyar stressed his call for the Taliban to relinquish their arms and join in reconciliation, adding that the time of war and the lifting of arms is over, and it is time for everyone to unite and cooperate for the establishment of security and peace in the country.
Hekmatyar said that Afghanistan is a country for all and no party should be excluded from its political makeup. All groups must strengthen the position of the central government and extend its control over the entire territory, he added.
The Hezb-e Islami leader expressed his support for the central government and all its efforts to achieve peace for Afghanistan.
The peace agreement inked last September marked a symbolic victory for Ghani, who has struggled to revive talks with the more powerful Taliban, but it has also fueled fears of more political division.
Ghani greeted Hekmatyar with pomp at the presidential palace Thursday. “Few people believed the 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.
Hekmatyar arrived at the palace after his convoy of several hundred vehicles made its way through Kabul’s main thoroughfares watched by hundreds of onlookers.
Some were supporters bearing the green party flag and flowers, singing the national anthem or chanting “Welcome to Kabul, Honorable Hekmatyar” in Pashto.
Onlooker Jamshed, who goes by one name, told AFP the “rare happy news” meant the Hekmatyar’s influence could help improve security.
“You (the Taliban) have to go back to your senses and end the useless war,” Hekmatyar said in his speech.
He later added that Taliban militiamen and members are Afghan citizens and they are brothers who he wanted to renounce violence and reach reconciliation with.
Ghani warmly welcomed Hekmatyar saying that his return to Kabul marked a great turning point for Afghanistan and its future.
“Where there is will, there is a way,” said Ghani. No one expected reconciliation with Hekmatyar.
Success in peace talks with Hezb-e Islami group proves that Afghans can solve their problems if they want to do so through direct communication and without foreign interference, Ghani added.
Afghanistan has suffered near-continuous fighting since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and beleaguered security forces are currently struggling to beat back the resurgent Taliban, with more than one third of the country outside government control.
Hekmatyar is the latest in a series of controversial figures that Kabul has sought to reintegrate by granting judicial immunity for past crimes, and many residents who spoke to AFP called for him to apologize and be prosecuted.
But in Kabul, where he is widely known as “Rocketyar” after the thousands of bombs his forces fired into the city, Hekmatyar has been awaited with a mixture of anticipation and mistrust.
Over recent days, posters of his face had been plastered all over the city, many immediately defaced by opponents.
His arrival also risks fueling ethnic divisions and complicating Ghani’s already difficult relationship with partners including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who is from Hekmatyar’s civil war rivals, the old Northern Alliance.
Abdullah’s mainly Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami party has been particularly suspicious of Hekmatyar, who draws most of his support from the Pashtuns, traditionally Afghanistan’s strongest ethnic group.
Human rights groups have also been strongly critical of the agreement, saying it reinforces a culture of impunity that allows political strongmen to get away with gross abuses.