Return of the Lion: Former Warlord Preps for Western Withdrawal

By Christian Neef

Photo Gallery: Former Afghan Warlord Fears Descent into Violence Photos
Corbis

While the West is trying to extricate itself from the war zone in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, old warlords like Ismail Khan are preparing for a post-withdrawal period that many anticipate will be violent.

Ismail Khan abruptly gets up from his armchair. "I understood the question," he says. "So you want to know whether now, 12 years after Western troops arrived, every village finally has electricity." Afghanistan's minister of water and energy walks over to a map on the wall on which rebuilt hydroelectric power plants, new solar plants and modern wind turbines are marked.

Khan grabs a pointer, taps it onto an area west of Herat and says: "This is where I came across the border from Iran with 17,000 men in 1996, during the Taliban era. Then we continued through Faryab and Mazar to Faizabad and back to Herat." He drags the pointer to the north and then to the east, sweeping it across all the wind turbines and power plants, as if they were nothing but hindrances. "My militias fought bravely everywhere," says Khan.

This minister doesn't want to talk about water and electricity, or about what his ministry has been up to since the Taliban was ousted. All he wants to talk about is the past, about fighting the Soviets, about the regime of former President Mohammad Najibullah and about the Islamists after they assumed power in Afghanistan.

But when he mentions the Taliban, he is also talking about the future. He foresees a return of the fundamentalist Taliban, the collapse of the government in Kabul and the eruption of a new war between ethnic groups. He sees a future in which power is divided between the clans as it was in the past, and in which the mujahedeen, the tribal militias seasoned by battles against the Soviets and later the Taliban, remain the sole governing force.

Khan's advisors sit at a respectful distance from the minister. Some have dozed off -- it's afternoon during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and their strength is waning. But now they are nodding their approval. Filled with reverence, they gaze at their boss, a diminutive Tajik with a magnificent white beard, who always wears an equally white pajama-like outfit known as a Perahan Tunban, together with a black turban.

The 'Lion of Herat'

In truth, the 65-year-old minister is still what he was 30 years ago: a mujahed, or warlord, although he doesn't like the latter term. "The Americans and English tried to discredit us with that word, until they realized that they couldn't do without us in their fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban," Khan, now an older, more peaceful man, says with a smile.

But he is also a man who had entire armies march across the Hindu Kush Mountains in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. He was one of the commanders in the ensuing civil war, in which Afghanistan's ethnic groups -- the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks and Pashtuns -- massacred one another and laid waste to the capital Kabul.

Khan, governor of the most important province in western Afghanistan until 2004, was known as the "Lion of Herat." He still prefers to be addressed by his former title of Emir. But then he became too powerful for the Americans and President Hamid Karzai, so they removed Khan from office and brought him to Kabul to keep a closer eye on him. He was finally given the somewhat laughable position of water and energy minister, despite his feeling that he should have been offered the job of defense or interior minister instead. "I didn't join this cabinet voluntarily," says Khan.

His office is now in a dilapidated building on the street leading to the Darul Aman Palace on the outskirts of Kabul, a stately building that once housed the parliament and was reduced to a ruin in the country's civil war. Khan, who has been water and energy minister for eight years, dedicates power plants, solicits bids for the construction of power lines and attends cabinet meetings. His ministry is not important in Kabul, and yet both the Americans and Karzai are afraid of him -- especially Karzai.

The year 2014 is approaching, and with it the withdrawal of NATO troops. When Khan appears in public today, it is with the demeanor of the mujahed. "We cannot allow Afghanistan to be destroyed once again," he said publicly late last year. He has also said that government forces are powerless in large parts of the country, that Afghans should arm themselves once again, new recruits should enlist and the command structures of the former militias ought to be reestablished.

The international coalition "has taken away our artillery and tanks and turned them into scrap metal. Instead, they have brought Dutch, German, American and French girls to our country, along with white soldiers from Europe and black soldiers from Africa, who were supposed to bring security to Afghanistan. They have failed," Khan said in a speech at a rally in Herat.

Mujahedeen Comeback?

After the speech, President Karzai announced that the minister's words had "nothing to do with the government's policies." An Afghan senator said that people like Khan smell blood, and that they see the withdrawal of Western troops as "the opportunity to launch another civil war and eliminate local rivals." American four-star General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan until February, expressed his concerns in a letter to Karzai.

Khan laughs. "One letter? There were two. Karzai showed them to me. And I said to him: It's a good thing that someone like Allen realizes what kinds of people we have here."

"So you believe that the Taliban will return as soon as NATO is gone?"

"The arrogant Americans drove the most important Taliban out of Kabul, bombed the rest from the air and then ended the war," says the minister. "So far, 2013 has been the bloodiest year yet in Afghanistan. The Taliban are in all the villages once again. They want all the power. Our army won't be able to stop them."

"And you could stop them?"

"We have 20 years of combat experience, and we defeated a superpower. We can deal with the Taliban too," says Khan, leaning back in his chair. "But not this army," he adds, waving his hand in the direction of the defense ministry. The Afghan army, trained by the West, has lost 63,000 men, or one in three soldiers, to desertion in the last three years.

Rarely have officials in Afghan government ministries spoken as frankly as they do today, now that the Western troop withdrawals have begun. And Ismail Khan is by no means an eccentric maverick. Marshal Mohammed Fahim, a former warlord and Afghanistan's first vice president, speaks of a comeback by the mujahedeen. And Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of legendary mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has even said publicly that his followers are arming themselves once again.

"Before the West leaves this place, it should give us back our planes and artillery, or the equivalent," Khan says before going to pray.

The Trust of the People

The town where Khan gave a speech last November is called Shahrak Shuhoda, or Town of Martyrs. The road to Shahrak Shuhoda leads from Herat toward the Iranian border. It is a village of 130 families, who live in houses with covered inner courtyards, built less than a decade ago with German money. The residents of Shahrak Shuhoda are all former mujahedeen and their families, as well as the widows of fallen fighters. The school, also built with German funds, is called the "Ismail Khan School."

Jalil Ahmad, a slim 25-year-old man, teaches at the school and is also a student of literature in Herat. His father and uncle died in the struggle against the communist government in 1990. He earns a monthly salary of €93 ($126), enough to buy a sack of rice, cooking oil and gasoline for his motorcycle. It isn't much, and yet he is convinced that the Taliban would deprive him of even that small income if it returned to the region. It's one of the reasons he attended the celebrated rally with Ismail Khan.

"There were 15,000 people there," he says. "But what the government is saying about Ismail Khan isn't true. He didn't talk about rearmament or about the formation of new militias. He called for unity. He said that we shouldn't be afraid of 2014, but that we should be well-prepared."

Ahmad adds that people trust Khan, and that the mujahedeen leader has a good reputation in Herat. "They assumed power here twice: In 1992, when they overthrew Najibullah, and in 2001, after the fall of the Taliban. The region blossomed each time."

But fear has become pervasive in all provinces as the Americans transport their containers across the Khyber Pass and the Germans fly their military equipment to Turkey. In Herat, the largest city in western Afghanistan, the fear isn't immediately apparent. The population has swelled to one million, with four million people living in the surrounding area. Herat, which benefits from trade with Iran and Turkmenistan, seems cleaner and more orderly than other Afghan cities. The Taliban has never enjoyed any support in the region.

That must have changed at some point, though. In mid-September, a truck loaded with explosives blew up in front of the US consulate in Herat. A bomb destroyed a motorized rickshaw in the Obe District, causing 19 deaths, almost all of them women and children, say police. In the town of Karukh, Taliban militants recently killed Wali Jaan, a public prosecutor and the brother of National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta.

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1. deja vu
nicaea325 09/24/2013
We knew this would be the outcome the day U.S. troops were ordered into the area. This is a sad testimony for the U.S., to send so many to death without cause.
2.
High Hat 09/24/2013
It's very disappointing, but not surprising, to see Afghanistan on this path. My country lost almost 6,000 young men and women in this futile effort, not to mention billions of dollars. I hope the politicians have learned their lesson once and for all about nation building in a Muslim country. There is no way to reconcile Islam with a democratic republic form of government. An excellent article.
3. A Leader?
spon-facebook-10000149782 09/24/2013
Hint: it is not the politician in Kabul that offers hope against the Taliban. America has little more than a year to do something right.
4. Afghanistan
aka.adamkhan 09/25/2013
After 12 years of wars, hundreds of thousands killed and many billions spent, we will go back to square one? Have the same warlords and killers in power?
5. History ignored by leaders
snowyb 10/16/2013
Only one civilizing influence works-trade. By offering the promise of a richer and safer life, it subsumes violence and zealotry in due time. Military intervention on a long basis is a waste of all; the key is to give individuals the power and wealth to not be beholden to tyrants and to demand autonomy in their everyday lives. Alas, Babylon...
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