Photo Gallery: Former Afghan Warlord Fears Descent into Violence
Return of the Lion Former Warlord Preps for Western Withdrawal
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.
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.
Old Scores to Settle
"I believe the worst days are ahead of us," says Said Hussein. He should know. He was a captain with the mujahedeen and remembers all too well what happened after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Najibullah, put in office by Moscow, had another three years before he was toppled and the civil war began. He was later hung. Will the same thing happen to Karzai?
Hussein, 55, is a guard at the Jihad Museum in Herat, the only memorial site to the mujahedeen's war of resistance in Afghanistan. It is located above the city, next to the heavily guarded United States Consulate. It provides an image of what could happen in Afghanistan after 2014.
The museum is closed, but Hussein is happy to open the building for us. Century-old English carbines, Soviet weapons and homemade grenade launchers are exhibited in glass cabinets. The displays convey the message that the Afghans defeated the Soviets like Davids to a Goliath.
On the way to the upper floor, there is a display of a group of mujahedeen, 50 figures made of cement and plaster, listening to their leader, a thickset man with a white beard: Ismail Khan. Then the room opens onto a monumental, 360-degree diorama that depicts the history of the resistance movement against the Soviet occupiers and the communist regime in Kabul.
There is a portrayal of tribal elders and village clerics, who unleashed the Herat resistance movement against the communist regime in March 1979. The garrison joined forces with the rebels, including Khan, a 31-year-old captain at the time. They massacred hundreds of civilians, together with the Soviet occupiers and their women and children. Soviet aircraft bombed Herat in response, killing 24,000 Afghans. Khan went underground and assembled his rebel army.
The museum depicts attacking Soviet tanks, burning villages, farmers wielding clubs as they fought the soldiers and the refugee treks to Pakistan. It also depicts the rebel war against the occupiers, which was also a struggle against communist Kabul, followed by the battles against Najibullah's army in 1991 and, finally, the triumphal march of the mujahedeen into Herat in 1992.
Khan appears in many of the images, hidden among the other figures and yet easily recognizable. In one photo, he is sitting on an anti-aircraft missile used to shoot down Russian fighter jets, and in another he is shown promising a woman to bring home the body of her fallen son. In the final image, Khan is marching with the victors through the city's triumphal arch.
There is very little mention of what happened after that, including the civil war and the period of Taliban rule, Khan's flight to Iran and his return, his capture by the Taliban and his escape from the prison in Kandahar. The struggles that cost him his governorship in 2004 are not mentioned at all. At the time, local commanders staged a coup against him, prompting NATO troops and Karzai's forces to intervene. Khan's son died in the fighting. He undoubtedly has some old scores to settle.
'Mr. Khan Helped Us a Great Deal'
"There are plenty of people here who would follow him immediately if it became necessary," says museum guard Hussein. Then he tells the story of a US general who came to the museum and asked him whether he, Hussein, had handed in his weapons after the fall of the Taliban. Yes, Hussein replied, he had turned over his old Kalashnikov. But, he added, he still had two new Kalashnikovs, wrapped in oil paper and hidden in his house. The American said nothing for a moment and then thanked Hussein for his honesty.
"Weapons are being distributed everywhere in the villages, both here and in neighboring provinces," says Hussein. "The price of a good Kalashnikov from one of the weapons markets in Pakistan or Iran is already up to $1,500 again. Demand is growing."
Abdul Wahab Qattali, also known as General Wahab, is a good person to ask whether Herat is still a stronghold for Ismail Khan. He is sitting on the terrace of his restaurant in the northern part of the city, just as the evening call to prayer heralds the Iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan.
Wahab's business is more than a restaurant. It is a glass palace in the middle of an amusement park where Herat residents celebrate weddings. It also includes a zoo and a pond, where visitors paddle around in swan-shaped gondolas. Others picnic in small pavilions above the lights of the city.
Wahab calls his business, which cost him several million dollars, a "citizens' garden." It is his second signature project, next to the Jihad Museum. "Mr. Khan helped us a great deal," says Wahab, who once served as Khan's chief of staff.
General Wahab has become prosperous in recent years. He also owns a large poultry farm with a refrigeration plant, and his family owns a TV and a radio station. He is in de facto control of the local parliament, which his son Sayed Wahid chairs. The son, 28, sits next to his father like a schoolboy. It is difficult to imagine that the will of the people was responsible for putting this young man into office. In Afghanistan, a person's vote can be bought for $20.
Wahab is a diminutive man who harbors a great deal of anger. The people who are in power in Kabul have "no relationship with this country," he says, as he walks through the citizens' garden, greeting acquaintances and allowing his underlings to kiss his hand. The country's current rulers came from abroad and "pushed the mujahedeen out of the way," he explains. According to Wahab, the money flowing into the country is stolen in Kabul, so that the rest of the country sees none of it.
'Everything Will Start All Over Again Next Year'
There is also a more specific reason for his anger. His company, the Faizi Group, spent eight years protecting NATO transports and the roads built in the region by the West. Wahab concedes that it was a good business. "I paid $1.7 million in taxes to the government, but I also created many jobs," he says.
Some $800 million was invested in the new highway from Herat to Kandahar. Two years ago, Wahab was forced to turn over his control of the road to the government. Since then, he says, bridges have fallen into disrepair and a fifth of the route is already in poor condition. According to Wahab, the government doesn't care about this, or about the 2,500 workers he had to let go. Some 30,000 jobs were lost in Herat, says Wahab, and residents are now barely able to afford the electricity imported from abroad. He explains that while he is merely losing money, local residents are struggling to survive.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, Wahab inspects his radio station, Azar Dokhtran Herat. Of the city's 10 radio stations, his is the only one that exclusively targets young women and girls. A live call-in show hosted by two women, called "Good Morning," is underway. The listeners talk about family problems, abuse and their efforts to find work.
What is happening in the studio is the mujahedeen's attempt to build a bridge to the generation that has no memory of the wars, and yet will play an indispensable role if the cards are reshuffled in Afghanistan.
"It's clear that everything will start all over again here next year," says General Wahab. He isn't willing to explain exactly why, but one gets a sense of what he means. The Taliban isn't his biggest concern. Herat is Tajik country, where the ruling Pashtuns make up only a small percentage of the population. Everyone knows that a Pashtun will succeed President Karzai in Kabul, which will only lead to renewed strife. And NATO will be gone by then. So why not turn Herat Province into a separate principality of sorts once again? "We need someone with authority here," says Wahab. "We need Ismail Khan."
Fear of the Future
The first thing visitors see when they land at the Herat airport and drive into the city is an industrial park. It includes a small steel mill operated by Kabul Folad Steel, where we meet with the owner, Esmatullah Wardak.
There is currently no company in Afghanistan that produces construction steel. Builders have had to import reinforced steel from Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Wardak, 40, has built a large factory building where steel bars are cast in a giant scrap melting furnace.
Ismail Khan? "He was the one who created this industrial park, with its 30,000 jobs, brought in electricity from Turkmenistan and Iran and made the city safe. It wasn't the government in Kabul, which would have taken 100 years to do it," says Wardak, as his prayer beads glide through his fingers. "And I'm not a member of his people. I'm not from his province, and I was never a supporter of his ideology."
Wardak has invested $20 million in the last three years, and he employs 500 workers. Now the government in Kabul has given him the runaround. He brought in 10 engineers from India and Turkey, because there are hardly any professionals in Afghanistan, but their visas are not being renewed, at least not in Herat, despite an order from Karzai to renew the visas. "But his officials aren't obeying the order," says Wardak.
He stomps furiously through the dust in front of his factory building. "I'm not afraid of the NATO withdrawal. But I am afraid of whoever comes into power after Karzai." Even this president, he says, has done nothing for Afghanistan in 12 years. "If something goes wrong with Iran, all they have to do there is flip a switch and we no longer have electricity."
Wardak says that he will close his factory again unless Kabul does something to help him. According to Wardak, investment has declined by 60 percent since NATO announced its withdrawal. Real estate values have plummeted and business owners are taking their money out of the country. The adjacent factory, he says, used to assemble 400 motorcycles a day but now produces only 100.
"I deal in steel, but I'm also as tough as steel. I will close the doors in full view of the press and will unload my 500 people in front of the governor's office." What happens after that, he says, will no longer be his concern. His family is already in Dubai. He has a visa for Europe's Schengen zone and one for the United States. All he has to do is drive to the airport and buy a ticket, he says. "Then I'll be gone from here."
Out at the airport at this very moment, the engines of a Boeing jet are churning up the yellow desert sand as a plane operated by the state-owned airline Ariana lands on the runway. It is filled with Afghan dignitaries, half of the Kabul government. They get into SUVs and are taken to Herat's Friday Mosque, where Wali Jaan, the murdered brother of National Security Advisor Spanta, is being buried today.
Ismail Khan is also sitting in one of the vehicles. He is back in Herat. This time it will only be for two hours, but perhaps his next stay will be of a longer duration.