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Afghanistan: Future Of Governor Of Herat Hangs In Balance

By J.M. Ledgard

Afghanistan's interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, has spoken out strongly against Mohammad Ismail Khan, the governor of the western province of Herat. Following a recent visit to Herat, Jalali said an atmosphere of repression and fear hangs over the province. He called for Ismail Khan to give up his army command and hand over customs revenues to Kabul.

Kabul, 14 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali recently visited the western province of Herat with harsh words about its governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan.

Jalali said Ismail Khan's power is so absolute that many of his opponents are too fearful to express their views publicly, instead slipping written complaints to the interior minister at the end of official meetings.

"When I left the meeting, people would be sticking papers into my pockets, complaining that [Ismail Khan] is a very selfish person and that he is doing things through a group around him and he is trying to build himself up. And not only in Herat -- he is [also] interfering in the affairs of other provinces," Jalali said.

No one knows how many people live in Herat Province, or its capital of the same name. The Herat Statistics Office has, by its own admission, not accumulated a single new fact since the fall of the Taliban.

Its filing cabinets remain unopened; its desks are covered in dust. The clerk has no idea how many workers are employed in the provincial government -- in particular, how many men serve in the Herat militia under the command of Ismail Khan.

The population of the province, the clerk guesses, might be 3 million, with 1.5 million in and around the city of Herat itself. But Kabul -- seeking to downplay the importance of the region -- says the number is more likely half that.

The population is certainly growing with the return of Afghan refugees from neighboring Iran and the influx of rural poor escaping the drought-ravaged interior. Many new arrivals belong to the Shi'a religious minority. They have taken complaints of discrimination to Jalali.

"Some complain that Pashtuns were not given a fair share in the government. And then the Shi'a asked one day to see me, all the Shi'a leaders, and they said that in 70 departments in Herat, only one department is headed by a Shi'a," Jalali said.

Nearly all of Herat's offices are run by men loyal to Ismail Khan -- a former Afghan army officer who won a passionate following for his fight against the invading Soviet forces and later the Taliban. The local "shura," or council of professionals, says Ismail Khan too often promotes unqualified, sometimes barely literate, supporters to important positions.

The 1,000-member shura represents many of Herat's lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and teachers. It supports a democratic, centralized Afghanistan. It is opposed to what it sees as Ismail Khan's attempt to consolidate power through a personality cult.

"Heratis are more civilized and more literate than other Afghans," shura spokesman Rafiq Shahir said. "That is why they oppose Ismail Khan. They expect more."

Shi'a leaders in Herat met in secret with RFE/RL out of fear of reprisals and summary imprisonment. They emphasize that Shi'as -- particularly ethnic Hazaras -- fought with Ismail Khan against the Soviets and helped him escape at least one Soviet siege, in Zendajan. A Shi'a uprising against the Taliban in Herat, they say, resulted in the mass execution of several hundred Shi'as.

"The main complaint we have against Ismail Khan is that Shi'as fought very hard, struggled very hard, and now nothing is distributed to our people," one leader said.

But Shi'as are unlikely to get a larger slice of the pie any time soon. For one thing, they lack firepower. There are only 400 or so fighters in Herat loyal to Hizb-e Wahdat, the fractious and war-crime-tainted political party which claims to speak for Shi'a Hazaras -- and they are under the nominal command of Ismail Khan.

Qalee Massoun, a close aide of Ismail Khan, rejects the charges of discrimination. There is no police state in Herat, he said, adding: "Look at the Shi'as in the bazaars. You'll see how they are free to do as they please."

Massoun has served Ismail Khan since the fight against the Soviets and now oversees the Herat militia from a spartan barrack house on a hill above Herat city. He refuses to say how many soldiers are loyal to Ismail Khan. Informed observers estimate it is smaller and weaker than previously thought -- perhaps 3,000 men in uniform with 25,000 more reservists on the payroll. Enough, anyway, to brush off Kabul's insistent demand that Ismail Khan give up his army post and demobilize his soldiers. "Ismail Khan is the warrior-father of the people," Massoun said firmly.

If Kabul is too weak to remove Ismail Khan, the international community is too divided. The heads of several aid agencies based in Herat privately say that the governor, who styles himself amir, offers a fair trade in a messy situation. His poor human rights record -- middling by Afghan standards -- is offset by his tough stance on opium production and the neo-Taliban.

Herat is also one of Afghanistan's safest provinces. The security Ismail Khan provides allows aid workers to deliver basic human rights of water, food, and shelter to more people. Aid workers are quick to point out that this is impossible in the insecure south of the country, where narco-enriched commanders and neo-Talibs run free.

Besides, Ismail Khan enjoys wide popular support in the province. Many share the view of Jamal Ashari, an educated young Herati, who works for an international aid agency. "So, as time passed, he [showed] that now he is good, he can do everything. He tried to find some work for the jobless, if he could, and everywhere he went he was checking everything. We also don't have any [problems] related to security," Ashari told RFE/RL.

The question in Herat is not of deposing Ismail Khan but of subordinating him to the will of Kabul. Jalali believes progress is being made. "You know, he was very scared when I went there," Jalali said. "He thought that I am there to remove him. Everywhere I went to in all these districts, he had stage-managed the situation and people were coming to me, supporting him and [saying], 'Don't remove our amir from us.' And I never called him 'amir.' I always called him 'the governor.'"

The idea of Ismail Khan running scared seems far-fetched. The proof will be how much of the customs revenue he chooses to hand over to Kabul. An agreement negotiated in detail in May with Finance Minister Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai saw Ismail Khan hand over $20 million in a suitcase to Kabul.

His supporters are calculating that smaller regular deliveries of cash can put off a serious confrontation with the capital. That should not be too painful. The head of Herat's customs, Abdul Azim Rahimi, does a quick calculation on the back of a piece of paper. His sprawling customs post is taking in about $1 million a week in revenues, he decided.

Even if Kabul gets all of that, Ismail Khan's men will still be able to pad out their meager $30-a-month incomes with bribes. Local businessmen can count on paying between $500 and $1,000 for every shipping container of goods brought in from Iran, and up to $2,000 to bring in a new Toyota Landcruiser -- the chariot of choice for Afghanistan's commander class.