Officials in Afghanistan have signed a peace agreement with a party led by one of the country’s most notorious Islamist warlords.
The militant faction of Hezb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been waging a decades-long battle to establish a unified Islamic state in Afghanistan.
It is not clear when the agreement will be implemented.
Analysts say the accord is mostly symbolic.
Who is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?
Hekmatyar is a controversial figure.
He has been accused of killing or wounding thousands of people when his troops targeted civilian areas of Kabul during the wars of the 1990s.
However, Hezb-i-Islami has played a relatively small role in the insurgency recently, compared to the Taliban or ISIL.
The agreement grants Hekmatyar amnesty for past offences. It also allows for the release of certain Hezb-i-Islami prisoners.
The Kabul government has also agreed to press for international sanctions against Hekmatyar to be lifted.
During the 1980s, Hekmatyar received significant aid from the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan.
He split from his international backers and narrowly survived a US drone strike after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.
He was later designated a “global terrorist” by the US for his suspected ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Several hundred protesters gathered in Kabul bearing signs calling the deal a “crime”.
“Any deal with Hekmatyar and other criminals is treason,” said Sealy Ghaffar, one of the protest organisers. “Peace will never be achieved by sacrificing justice.”
A challenge for the Afghan government?
Bringing Hekmatyar into the fold may cause friction within the Afghan government.
It is already split between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Both are surrounded by warlords and power-brokers with histories of ethnic divisions.
Abdullah’s mainly Tajik supporters have been alarmed by the prospect of a powerful Pashtun bloc upsetting the uneasy equilibrium that has held since the disputed 2014 election.
This was resolved by the creation of a national unity government.
What they are saying
Government officials praised the accord as a step towards peace.
“I hope that this is the beginning of a permanent peace in our country,” said Sayed Ahmad Gilani, head of the government’s High Peace Council and one of the signatories of the agreement.
However, critics say it opens the door to one of the most infamous figures in Afghanistan, giving him a role in the country’s already divisive politics.
“The deal will have little impact on the dynamics of conflict. The government’s rationale is that by luring Hekmatyar on board, other insurgent groups might be encouraged to consider peace too,” said Timor Sharan, a Kabul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
The US Embassy in Kabul has welcomed the accord as “a step in bringing the conflict in Afghanistan to a peaceful end.”
The UN says it demonstrates the preparedness of Afghanistan’s government to seek peace with armed anti-government elements.