A challenge from a western Afghan regional leader threatened to turn Afghanistan's third-largest city into a battlefield as 1,500 Afghan National Army troops headed for Herat Province on 22 March -- possibly with support from coalition forces -- in an attempt by the Kabul-based government to restore order to an area whose governor has resisted the cession of power to the Afghan Transitional Administration. An analysis of the situation from Amin Tarzi.
There are fears that the situation could rapidly escalate if the self-styled "amir," or ruler, of Herat, Governor Ismail Khan, did not submit to the pledges he made 10 months ago and assume a less confrontational stance with respect to the central government.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that troops loyal to the central Afghan government's Herat division commander, General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, were on the move toward Herat from two neighboring provinces, Badghis and Ghor. Nayebzadah has been accused by some of having attempted to oust Ismail Khan with the help of 17th Division troops, which Nayebzadah commands. Nayebzadah's whereabouts were unknown on 22 March, one day after his Herat home was surrounded by troops loyal to Ismail Khan.
Large-scale fighting broke out between Ismail Khan's forces and 17th Division troops following the death on 21 March of Afghan Transitional Administration Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mohammad Mirwais Sadeq, who was also the son of Ismail Khan. Ismail Khan had himself survived a purported assassination attempt just hours earlier.
According to the deputy chief of security in Herat, Abdul Wahid Tawakali, one of the men accused of firing at Ismail Khan implicated Nayebzadah for masterminding the plot. Ismail Khan's spokesman, Gholam Mohammad Mas'un, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that Sadeq went to Nayebzadah's house to seek a clarification of reports that the general was involved in the assassination plot. Mas'un claimed that Sadeq's vehicle was ambushed by Nayebzadah's troops, killing Sadeq and five other individuals.
Nayebzadah had told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 March that Ismail Khan's loyalists tried to attack his house and that Sadeq was killed in the ensuing firefight. Nayebzadah, who described himself as serving the interests of the central government, claimed that Ismail Khan is seeking his own "personal government" in Herat.
Battles between Ismail Khan's forces and 17th Division troops loyal to General Nayebzadah raged until nightfall on 21 March. Casualty reports from Herat Province have differed considerably, ranging from 10 to more than 150. Mas'un told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that the number of casualties in the battles could not exceed 10. He added that some troops loyal to Nayebzadah had surrendered but others were still inside the 17th Division military compound. Mas'un described the situation in Herat as calm and described the reports of a large number of casualties as "propaganda" by Nayebzadah.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that a delegation headed by Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim that also includes the Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali left for Herat the same day to try to seek an end to the fighting there. Azimi put the number of Afghan National Army troops involved in the deployment at 1,500. Fahim's mission, according to Azimi, is to establish a cease-fire and investigate the circumstances around the death of Minister Sadeq.
If central-government forces are unable to impose a cease-fire, Kabul will seek the support of coalition forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan. A spokesman for the U.S. force in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, called the fighting in Herat an "internal" matter for the Afghans. He added that he has no information of any plans for involvement by U.S. forces. In a statement released on 21 March, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it appeared that the "violence [in Herat] began as a traffic incident and then escalated." The embassy added that the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Herat evacuated the German diplomatic staff, whose mission is situated near the site of hostilities, and the Italian ambassador to Kabul, who was visiting Herat at the time.
Nayebzadah and Ismail Khan are onetime allies, and both are members of the Jamiat-e Islami party led by the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Since the establishment of the post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan in December 2001, Ismail Khan has proven unwilling to submit to the central authority in Kabul. In May 2003, Ismail Khan and other governors and regional commanders signed a resolution with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in which they pledged, among other things, to "regularly transfer all the revenues to the capital," not to command militias, and to abolish titles such as "amir" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May 2003). Karzai vowed at the time to resign within three months if his administration proved unable to bring rogue provinces under Kabul's control. While some of the autonomous or semi-autonomous governors and commanders have been brought under the control, Ismail Khan is among those who have retained personal militias. He is still referred to as the "amir of Herat" in local press and by provincial officials.
Nayebzadah, on the other hand, seems to have allied himself with the central government. Karzai recently assigned him to his post as the commander of the 17th Division. Nayebzadah told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 March that his forces are under the command of the Afghan Defense Ministry, although he clarified that he had not consulted with Kabul regarding the outbreak of violence earlier in the day.
Ismail Khan's spokesman, General Mas'un, meanwhile told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March there was no need for Afghan National Army troops to come to Herat.