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Analysis: Karzai Turns Warlord Into Potential Ally

  • Amin Tarzi --> Ismail Khan (file photo) When Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his cabinet on 23 December, most observers hailed it as a technocratic team mostly devoid of warlords and other unsavory elements among Afghanistan's powerful personalities.

On the other hand, human rights advocates pointed to the appointment as energy minister of former Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan as a disappointment (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 December 2004).

The inclusion of Ismail Khan in the cabinet -- provided that the former militia leader concentrates on his current job -- can be viewed as the successful conclusion of one of Karzai's most daring maneuvers.

Until September 2004, Ismail Khan, the self-styled "amir," or ruler, of western Afghanistan, was one of the thorniest obstacles facing Kabul's plans to expand the central government's sway over the outlying provinces. While Karzai publicly announced his policy to rein in various warlords -- referred to by Kabul as "regional commanders" -- in May 2003, he had little success with Ismail Khan, who continued to rule his fiefdom of Herat virtually independently.

While most petty -- and some of the more powerful -- warlords could have been regarded as rather easy targets for a Kabul diplomatic campaign, since most had very bad human-rights records and did not have large popular support, Ismail Khan was a very tough target.

Compared to other warlords who in the years following the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001 roamed Afghanistan as ministers, governors, presidential candidates, or commanders, Ismail Khan's rule arguably had a positive side. He was not merely interested in enriching himself and his immediate associates; unlike most of his peers, there is no hard evidence that he was involved in the narcotics industry. Under Ismail Khan's dictatorial "emirate," Herat witnessed a reconstruction boom that included clean and efficient roads -- something still sorely lacking in Kabul.

While Ismail Khan initially kept from Kabul all -- and later at least a large portion -- of the tax revenues generated by Afghanistan's main border crossing with Iran, he spent a generous portion of it on public projects and as such had a substantial popular-support base in Herat. Lastly, Ismail Khan's past was not tainted with gross human rights abuses and he maintained his legendary status as a mujahedin commander during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

These attributes and his substantial military power rendered Ismail Khan a tough challenge for Karzai.

Finally, in September, through several smart political moves and perhaps some luck, Karzai managed to remove Ismail Khan from power and appointed him minister of mines and industry in his transitional administration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 24 September 2004).

Ismail Khan opted not to assume his ministerial post in Kabul and remained in Herat as a "private citizen." However, and more importantly, he did not cause any trouble, and tried to help calm the situation after some of his supporters, angered by his dismissal, went on a rampage in Herat city.

Karzai's decision to include Ismail Khan in his first postelection cabinet ought to be viewed not only from the prism of Ismail Khan's bad behavior while ruling Herat, but from the broader picture of the relative peaceful ending of warlordism throughout Afghanistan.

The fact that Ismail Khan now sits in the cabinet and takes orders from Karzai is a significant victory in itself. Regardless of the fact that he is not an energy expert, if Ismail Khan manages to run his department efficiently, relying on expert help for technical matters, the decision to include the decommissioned warlord into the cabinet may lead to positive repercussions on ending other warlords' careers.

Of course, Ismail Khan did not choose to be part of Karzai's cabinet; he simply had no better options. Recent Afghan history has illustrated that those who rule with the gun, respect force. Also, history shows that these figures only fight when cornered with no other options. Thus, removing the warlords while leaving them an option to save face, or in some cases even serving the state, may be the best available option to Karzai, who has yet to have anything resembling a military capable of projecting his orders by force.