Hundreds of rockets raining down on the city every day. The sound of gunfire crackling through deserted streets. Mangled bodies littering roads controlled by warring factions.
That was Kabul during the devastating civil war of the 1990s -- a conflict that pitted mujahedin factions against each other, killed some 100,000 people, and left most of the city in ruins.
Two decades on, one of the chief protagonists of the internecine 1992-96 war is returning to the city whose residents dubbed him the “Butcher of Kabul,” a nickname he earned for launching rocket attacks that killed thousands of civilians in residential neighborhoods.
The public resurrection of the long-exiled Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a U.S.-designated global terrorist and one of the most controversial figures of the past three decades of war in Afghanistan, has opened old wounds among Kabul residents who vividly remember his reign of terror.
For the Kabul government, however, the return of Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e Islami militants in conjunction with a cease-fire is seen as a breakthrough that could persuade the broader Taliban insurgency to negotiate a peace settlement.
WATCH: Peace Deal With 'Butcher Of Kabul' Sparks Protests In Afghan Capital
Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun commander, founded Hezb-e Islami in the mid-'70s to fight occupying Soviet troops and emerged after the Red Army's withdrawal as a leader of one of Afghanistan's more effective resistance forces. He and his militia then fought for control of Kabul in the civil war that followed and reportedly spurned a compromise that might have spared considerable bloodshed in the capital. Since the U.S.-led invasion and creation of a UN-backed Afghan government in 2001, he has led efforts from abroad aimed at opposing Afghan and international forces.
Hekmatyar’s return is a bitter pill for many Kabulis to swallow.
“The sky over Kabul was alight with rockets,” says Mohammad Isaq, a Kabul resident who lived in the Bagh-e Ali Mardon district of the capital's old city, a scene of some of the fiercest clashes, during the civil war of the '90s.
“The whole city was burning in a huge fire," he adds. “People won’t forget his past crimes. Thousands of people were martyred. My own brother, Amir Momad, was killed. He was 16 years old. Every family in Kabul was affected. How can they forget and forgive?”
Another Kabul resident, Bibi Gul, recounts the painful memories of living under Hekmatyar’s barrage of rockets, calling it the “darkest period for Afghanistan.”
“During the day or night, the rockets were coming,” she says. “We were living in basements or under bridges so the rockets wouldn’t kill us. In no way can we ever forgive Hekmatyar.”
Mohammad Amin Karim (right), a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Sayed Ahmad Gilani, the head of the government's High Peace Council, speak after signing a peace deal in Kabul on September 22.
The 68-year-old Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist, and his men were said to have patrolled the streets of Kabul, beating or throwing acid in the faces of women not wearing the head-to-toe burqa. His brutal tactics were similar in many respects to the Taliban’s draconian imposition of a strict interpretation of Shari'a law.
“Hekmatyar’s forces were torturing women and kidnapping women,” says Bibi Gul. “They forced them to wear the burqa and forbade them to go to school or work.”
Hope For Peace
There are concerns that come with making peace with a figure like Hekmatyar. He could prove to be a destabilizing force for the weak and divided national unity government in Kabul. He has also previously supported Al-Qaeda and carried out deadly attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces since the NATO-led invasion in 2001, leading to a purported U.S. missile attack targeting him in May 2002 and his designation by the U.S. State Department in 2003 as a "global terrorist."
Despite the designation and his continued fight against Afghan forces, Kabul reached out to Hekmatyar as early as 2008 in the hope of working out a peace deal.
The deal inked on September 22 is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the security situation in Afghanistan. Hezb-e Islami, the second-largest insurgent group operating in Afghanistan after the Taliban, is a largely diminished force and has become increasingly fractured over the past decade. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, members of the group’s political wing joined the internationally backed government in Kabul, although much of the military wing led by Hekmatyar rejected peace.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
But the agreement with Hekmatyar is a breakthrough for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who so far has had little to show for his efforts to end a 15-year insurgency.
While Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami military wing has been a largely dormant force in recent years, and has little political relevance in Afghanistan, the deal with the national government could be a template for any future deal with the Taliban.
Kabul hopes the peace accord will create a domino effect and persuade other militant groups to leave the battlefield and join a peaceful political process.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, is skeptical that such a scenario will unfold.
“The Taliban simply has no incentives to step off the battlefield and negotiate for peace, and the Hezb-e Islami deal is unlikely to change the Taliban's thinking on this at all,” he says. “The two groups operated in wildly different contexts. One has fallen from earlier glory and become somewhat of a nonfactor.”
But Kugelman adds that the deal is a “win-win” for Hekmatyar and his organization.
“For Hezb-e Islami, the incentives for peace simply outweigh those for war,” he argues. “It likely believes it can gain more from becoming a part of the political process than from staying on a battlefield where it is increasingly vulnerable and inactive. For Hekmatyar, there is an opportunity to build up some of the influence and political capital that he has lost in recent years.”
Hekmatyar has had a complicated relationship with the Taliban. He voiced support for the late Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and coordinated attacks against foreign and Afghan forces. But Hezb-e Islami fighters have also clashed with their Taliban counterparts, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, over territory.
The Taliban has so far publicly rejected direct talks with Kabul and has not changed its preconditions for joining the peace process, including a demand that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Abdul Rashid Dostum
Hekmatyar would not be the first alleged war criminal to be reintegrated into the mainstream by the government and its international allies in a bid to bring stability to the country. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former ethnic Uzbek militia leader accused by international rights observers of grave war crimes, is now first vice president. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, whose group allegedly committed massacres during the civil war and who is credited with bringing former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, ran for president in 2014.
Hekmatyar has earned a reputation for constantly changing sides and allegiances. He has variously been allied with other mujahedin groups, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran’s clerical regime, and more recently the brutal Sunni militant group Islamic State (IS).
After the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, Hekmatyar fled to Iran, where he was initially given protection. He left after a brief spell there -- reportedly with Washington pressuring Tehran to expel him -- and moved to Pakistan, where he is believed to have been mostly holed up since 2001.