MEHTARLAM -  In his first public speech since signing a peace deal with the Afghan government, one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords on Saturday called for the Taliban to stop fighting and begin negotiations.

"I invite you to join the peace caravan and stop the pointless, meaningless and unholy war," Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said to a gathering of his followers and Afghan politicians in Laghman province, east of the capital, Kabul. "I want a free, proud, independent and Islamic Afghanistan," he said.

Hekmatyar, white-bearded and clad in his trademark black turban, spoke to supporters at a gathering in Laghman province widely broadcast in Afghanistan, where his return to the political mainstream months after etching a landmark peace deal with Kabul has been hugely controversial.

"Come for God's sake, come and give up fighting which the victims of this war are Afghans," he said.

"Come and join this caravan of peace... Set your goals, and I will be with you on your good goals."

Known widely in the international press as the "Butcher of Kabul", Hekmatyar is one of the most infamous warlords of Afghanistan's history, chiefly remembered for his role in the bloody civil war of the 1990s.

But the peace deal signed with Kabul in September, Afghanistan's first such agreement since the Taliban launched their insurgency in 2001, paved the way for his political comeback after more than two decades.

In February the United Nations Security Council agreed to drop sanctions against Hekmatyar, paving the way for him to return openly to Afghanistan. The Afghan government requested the move as part of a peace deal with Hekmatyar and his militant group, Hezb-i-Islami, in September.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Hekmatyar's public return, saying the former strongman would cooperate with the government. "Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return will have remarkable effects on peace, stability, prosperity and development in all aspects," Ghani's office said in a statement.

The deal has been criticised by some Afghans and human rights groups for the pardon it granted to Hekmatyar and many of his fighters.

Hekmatyar's return "will compound the culture of impunity", Human Rights Watch researcher Patricia Gossman said of the deal, calling it an "affront" to victims of abuses.

A controversial figure from the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s and the civil wars of the 1990s, Hekmatyar is accused of ordering his fighters to bombard Kabul, leading to many casualties, besides other abuses.

His faction of Hezb-i-Islami has played a relatively small role in the current conflict, in which the Taliban have a leading role in battling the Western-backed government in Kabul.

In hiding for nearly a decade and a half, Hekmatyar had been designated a "global terrorist" by the United States, which has been leading an international military mission in Afghanistan for the past 15 years.

American and other Western leaders praised the deal with him, however, hoping it could help lead to wider peace in Afghanistan.

US MARINES RETURN

TO VOLATILE HELMAND

US Marines returned to Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Saturday, where American troops faced heated fighting until NATO's combat mission ended in 2014, as embattled Afghan security forces struggle to beat back the resurgent Taliban.

The deployment of some 300 Marines to the poppy-growing southern province came one day after the militants announced the launch of their "spring offensive", and as the Trump administration seeks to craft a new strategy in Afghanistan.

Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson attended a handover ceremony marking the return of the prestigious force, the first Marines in Afghanistan since 2014, an AFP photographer said.

Part of a regular troop rotation announced in January under the Obama administration, they will arrive in stages, eventually numbering some 300 who will take part in NATO's train, assist and advise mission.

Helmand for years was the centrepiece of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan - only for it to slip deeper into a quagmire of instability.

The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of Helmand's 14 districts, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency.

Around 30,000 people fled fighting in the province in 2016, mostly seeking refuge in provincial capital Lashkar Gah, with the city at times practically besieged.

The US has some 8,400 troops in Afghanistan with about another 5,000 from NATO allies, mostly taking part in the training mission.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis warned of "another tough year" in Afghanistan when he visited Kabul this week as part of the Trump administration's review of Afghan policy. Nicholson has called for a few thousand more troops to help break the "stalemate".

Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a retired Afghan general based in Kabul, was optimistic.

"If the Afghan forces and the US Marines jointly fight the phenomenon of the terrorism in southern Helmand, we will have tangible results," he told AFP.

Afghanistan has seen intensified Taliban attacks across the country, leaving Afghan forces - already beset by killings, desertions, and vacuums in leadership and morale - stretched on multiple fronts and facing soaring casualties.

Last week the Taliban delivered a stinging blow as militants dressed in Afghan army uniforms slaughtered at least 135 young recruits at a northern base, according to official figures - though multiple sources say the death toll is much higher.

The attack is believed to be the deadliest by the Taliban on a military target since they were driven from power in 2001. The group vowed more in the statement announcing their so-called "spring offensive" Friday.

With more than one third of Afghanistan outside of government control, civilians also continue to bear a heavy brunt, with thousands killed and wounded each year, including a disproportionate number of children, according to UN figures.

The Marines were among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Several thousand were deployed in Helmand, the deadliest province for US and British forces, where they engaged in bitter combat with the Taliban insurgency.

The US is also targeting Islamic State's affiliate in Afghanistan, earlier this month dropping its largest non-nuclear bomb on the jihadist group's hideouts.

The strike sparked questions over its use against a group that is not considered as big a threat as the Taliban.

Two US troops were killed Wednesday while fighting IS militants near the blast-site in eastern Nangarhar province in an incident potentially involving friendly fire, the Pentagon has said, adding an investigation has been launched.

 

 

 

Reuters/AFP

This news was published in The Nation newspaper. Read complete newspaper of 30-Apr-2017 here.