The deaths of seven people during riots by Ismail Khan's supporters came a day after the powerful warlord was sacked as Herat governor by Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. But in fact, relations between Herat and Kabul have been souring for more than a year and a half over Ismail Khan's refusal to pay the central government millions of dollars in import duties that his militia fighters have collected on goods from Iran.
Since March, Ismail Khan's private militia also has battled several rival militia groups around Herat. Last month, Ismail Khan lost his ability to generate import-duty revenue. That's because militias like that of his long-time rival, the ethnic Pashtun commander Amanullah Khan, surrounded Herat and effectively cut the city off from key transit routes and a strategic airport.
"It is clear that he is not as strong as he was, otherwise none of this would have been possible. On the other hand, the fact that these supporters of his took to the streets and, with relative impunity, attacked six different compounds -- it either means that there's a lot of chaos on the streets or that he continues to have power."
Supporters of Ismail Khan stormed the gates of a UN compound in Herat before looting and burning the offices there. It was one of six compounds attacked by the angry crowd on yesterday.
John Sifton, a researcher for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, has been reporting on the behavior of Ismail Khan and his militia forces for years. "Factors have been coming together and there is no simple explanation for how we got to where we are now," he told RFE/RL. "One thing that is clear is that Ismail Khan's power has been diminished over the last few months -- not only by advances of [his long-time rival, commander] Amanullah Khan, but by dissension of his own commanders who understand that in the long term, they may have a better chance of holding onto power by joining with the Kabul-based government of Hamid Karzai."
Sifton said there is no doubt that Ismail Khan was severely weakened by a series of military setbacks in recent months that have brought his rivals to the outskirts of Herat. But he also notes that Ismail Khan has a proven ability to make a comeback from seemingly hopeless situations.
"It is clear that he is not as strong as he was, otherwise none of this would have been possible. On the other hand, the fact that these supporters of his took to the streets and, with relative impunity, attacked six different compounds -- it either means that there's a lot of chaos on the streets or that he continues to have power. But either way, the situation is pretty fluid. And we will see in the next few days which way it goes," Sifton said.
But Ahmed Rashid, the author of the critically acclaimed book "Taliban," told RFE/RL that he thinks yesterday's events mark the beginning of the end of Ismail Khan's time as the ruler of a self-styled fiefdom in western Afghanistan. "I think [these protests against Ismail Khan's sacking] will blow over," Rashid said. "And I think most people in Herat will be quite happy to have a new governor. But it will take a bit of time. [Ismail Khan] can be a spoiler over the next few weeks. And he can certainly create problems. But I don't think he is going to be able to create major problems. And I think [the street demonstrations] will die down. I don't think there is that kind of public support for him. I'm sure he will be now watched very closely as to what he does."
Rashid rejected the analysis of observers who suggest Karzai sacked Ismail Khan to show voters that he will be a strong against warlords if he is elected on 9 October. "Clearly the timing is bad. And I don't think this is Karzai's timing. I think Karzai was very keen to get rid of Ismail Khan as early as May of 2003," he said. "What we did not have [in the past] was American backing for that move. The recent clashes between Ismail Khan and the Pashtun warlord Amanullah have finally made the Americans wake up to the fact that they have to back Karzai -- they have to back the Afghan government -- in getting rid of these warlords. So I think the timing has really been forced upon them -- upon the Americans. Whereas the Afghans have been quite supportive of wanting to get rid of [Ismail Khan] for more than a year."
The "Financial Times" of London today noted that local residents of Herat city have accused Pashtun government officials of orchestrating last month's attack on Herat by Amanullah Khan. The newspaper notes that one unnamed Afghan government official has said that the allegation held some truth.
"This is an accusation that Ismail Khan has made," Rashid said. "And I think certainly some of the leading ministers -- the reformists -- are Pashtuns in the finance and economic side in the government. They have been pushing Karzai very hard to get rid of Ismail Khan. But I don't think that really implicates these ministers in trying to rouse Pashtuns to join Amanullah and force [Ismail Khan] out through force."
Rashid explained that the Afghan Finance and Economy ministries have been trying for years to get Ismail Khan to deliver to Kabul the import duties collected on goods transported from Iran. The United Nations has complained since 2002 that Ismail Khan's "prohibitive" import duties were blocking humanitarian aid shipments. Payments demanded by Ismail Khan's fighters also have prevented many poor Afghan refugees from returning from Iran.