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Analysis: Is Herat A Prelude To The End Of Afghan Warlordism?

On 11 September, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai finally did what he had long been promising to do: He officially sacked one of Afghanistan's most colorful warlords, Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan of Herat Province in western Afghanistan.

One day later, roughly 1,000 of Ismail Khan's supporters torched several offices belonging to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. The mayhem left seven Afghans dead and forced many international organizations to close shop in the city of Herat in what is seen a temporary measure (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" 17 September 2004).

Karzai announced the appointment of Herat's self-styled "amir," or ruler, as minister of mines and industry -- an offer the governor has thus far rejected, instead opting to stay in Herat, apparently as a private citizen. Meanwhile, the newly appointed governor of Herat, Sayyed Ahmad Khairkhwah, seems to be administrating the province with little difficulty. The new governor has appealed to international organizations to return to Herat.

The Road To The Amir's Ouster

Relationships between Karzai's central administration in Kabul and Ismail Khan's virtual fiefdom of Herat have been less than cordial since the demise of the Taliban in late 2001. Upon the establishment of the Afghan Interim Authority following the Bonn agreement in December 2001, Ismail Khan established himself in his former position as the virtual ruler of Herat and parts of adjoining provinces.

In the early months of post-Taliban Afghanistan, as coalition forces concentrated on flushing out remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from the country, any anti-Taliban force that had brought stability in a given region of Afghanistan was regarded as an ally. Ismail Khan's presence in Herat was no exception.
By the end of 2002, human rights organizations began to pay more attention to Ismail Khan's methods of rule.

By the end of 2002, human rights organizations began to pay more attention to Ismail Khan's methods of rule. For example, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on 5 November 2002 documented widespread abuses by the military, police, and intelligence services under the command of Ismail Khan. The 51-page report, titled "All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan," listed abuses including arbitrary and politically motivated arrests, intimidation, extortion, and torture, as well as serious violations of the rights of free expression and free association. Other reports listing Ismail Khan's policies of segregation of sexes and his increasingly heavy-handedness on the media followed.

In the same month, reports of armed clashes between Ismail Khan's militia and forces loyal to Amanullah Khan Naykzad, a Pashtun commander in southern Herat Province, became more violent. While the governor accused Naykzad of being a "Talib," Naykzad charged that Ismail Khan was on an anti-Pashtun witch-hunt under the pretext of fighting the Taliban.

Clashes between the two sides in Herat's Shindand District gradually became more violent as both sides began using battle tanks and heavy artillery. Despite reported requests by Naykzad, Kabul was mostly absent from the Herat quagmire. However, after U.S. forces patrolling the main military airfield in western Afghanistan situated in Shindand, came under attack by one of the warring militias, the U.S. Air Force bombed the frontlines in early December.

The show of force prompted the antagonists to sign a cease-fire in which Kabul finally began to play a mediating role. However, later in January 2003, the Afghan Defense Ministry said that it was not going to try to disarm the warlords by force, thus allowing Ismail Khan and others to keep their military units intact. As a result, skirmishes continued between the respective militias of Ismail Khan and Naykzad.

In March, Ismail Khan's influence reportedly reached to Badghis Province, northeast of Herat, where some Pashtun residents complained of harassment. Analysts at the time believed that the apparent timing of Ismail Khan's military operations in Badghis suggested he might be trying to deflect the increasing international attention away from allegations of rights abuses.

Then, in May, Chairman Karzai called a meeting of provincial governors who had refused to send customs-tax revenues to the central government -- Ismail Khan chief among them. In an apparent display of his frustration, Karzai vowed to resign in three months' time if his administration proved unable to bring outlying provinces under Kabul's control.

Karzai managed to obtain written pledges of cooperation from those governors and warlords who had thus far refused to deliver customs revenues to the coffers of the central administration in Kabul. These individuals also pledged to follow and implement the laws, regulations, and legislative documents of the country and entailed in their job descriptions; not interfere in the affairs of other provinces; implement internal and external policies as directed by the central administration; and not hold military and civilian posts concurrently. They also pledged to dismantle special "zones" created in the northern and western parts of the country, and agreed that titles such as "amir" would carry no legal weight and would be unlawful and invalid.

Almost immediately after the meeting in Kabul, Governor Ismail Khan stated that he would retain, in contradiction to his pledge, his position as the military commander of Herat. In August, in official defiance of Karzai and of his own pledge, Ismail Khan organized a Herat Province loya jirga that issued a manifesto calling for the "esteemed al-Haj Amir Mohammad Ismail" to hold two posts: governor and commander of the military corps of Herat.

The beginning of Ismail Khan's end began in March 2004 with the tragic death of his son, Afghanistan's Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mohammad Mirwais Sadeq, under circumstances that remain unclear. Sadeq's killing, apparently by troops loyal to General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, commander of the 17th Division that is based in Herat, led to large-scale fighting between Nayebzadah and Ismail Khan's supporters in the city of Herat (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" 25 March 2004).

In an attempt to defuse the tension, Kabul decided to dispatch (against the wishes of Ismail Khan) a contingent of around 1,500 men from the nascent Afghan National Army to Herat. At the time, reports suggested that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad had urged Ismail Khan to accept a cabinet post in Kabul in lieu of the governorship of Herat. In defiance, Ismail Khan, purporting to act as the Afghan Ministry of Defense, appointed a new commander for the 17th Division.

In August, militiamen loyal to Ismail Khan engaged troops loyal to Mohammad Ebrahim Malikzadah, the governor of Ghor Province to Herat's east, further stretching his military forces.

The straw that broke the camel's back came in mid-August when forces of Naykzad overran Ismail Khan's defenses and reached, according to some reports, within 30 kilometers of the city of Herat. Units of the National Army -- backed by U.S. air forces and a few U.S. advisers on the ground -- managed to create a buffer zone, keeping the antagonists apart. Khalilzad managed to broker a cease-fire in a conflict that had left more than 130 people dead and Ismail Khan finally at the mercy of the National Army and its U.S. backers.

An Efficient Dictator

Compared to other warlords roaming Afghanistan as ministers, governors, presidential candidates, or commanders, Ismail Khan's presence arguably had a positive side. He was not merely interested in enriching himself and his immediate associates. Under Ismail Khan's dictatorial "emirate," Herat witnessed a reconstruction boom that included clean and efficient roads -- something that Kabul dearly misses. While Ismail Khan initially kept all -- and later at least a large portion -- of the tax revenues generated by Afghanistan's main border crossing with Iran, he spent a portion of it on public projects.

With respect to his past compared to other warlords, Ismail Khan apparently was not engaged in wholesale massacres or sexual abuses. He reportedly was a tough, even ruthless, commander during the jihad period (1978-92). But he was always a mujahed -- unlike some other warlords who turned chameleon, changing sides and selling their allies at will.

Such traits made Ismail Khan a sort of legend -- one bolstered by his escape from a Taliban prison. As a legend with a solid local backing, Ismail Khan arguably was the toughest of the warlords to crack.
As a legend with a solid local backing, Ismail Khan arguably was the toughest of the warlords to crack.

It is still early to predict what might happen in Herat. More than a week after his ouster as governor, the amir is living in the domain over which he once ruled, but as a citizen. If this affair lasts, Ismail Khan's ouster is a crucial victory for Afghanistan's central government -- and for whomever the Afghans choose as their first elected president in October.

Who's Next?

If Ismail Khan could be removed with little resistance -- although the circumstances leading to this ouster took lengthy steps and unfortunately involved the spilling of blood -- then why couldn't the Afghan central authorities and their international backers use this example and begin working on other warlords who, unlike Ismail Khan, do not enjoy popular support? On the contrary, some of the warlords might easily be referred to a court for crimes against humanity, if such an institution existed for Afghanistan. (At the first hint of a move against them, they would likely leave the country.) Ismail Khan's ouster clearly illustrated that the warlords, whose services might arguably have been needed in the early days after the demise of the Taliban, are no longer necessary and are the most visible obstacles on Afghanistan's march toward stable statehood.

This author wrote immediately following the May 2003 pledge that Karzai obtained from Ismail Khan and others that the Afghan leader "has obtained a good working document from the renegade governors/warlords. However, implementation of this agreement needs to be backed by force -- something that Karzai does not have" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" 23 May 2003). It appears that Karzai today has the services of the National Army, backed by its international supporters.

The removal of a single warlord is insufficient. What Afghanistan urgently needs is an international security arrangement to ensure both that terrorists and domestic and international spoilers are kept at bay throughout the country and that ordinary Afghans are allowed to voice their opinions in vital decisions for the country (such as the election of a president and later a parliament) free of intimidation by this or that warlord -- whatever title they are afforded these days.