Residents of Herat rejoiced—but kept their doubts—after Ismail Khan, their former governor and a Northern Alliance commander, captured this Afghan city from Taliban forces last week.
Khan’s victory marked his return to a part of the country where he is considered a people’s hero.
Many Afghans resent the alliance, a ragtag coalition that once pillaged the capital of Kabul, but they’re willing to give Khan a second chance. When the Tajik commander ruled Herat, from 1992 to 1995, some residents even called him the “good warlord.”
“Young Heratis glorify him because he disarmed civilians,” said Fazul Rahim Ansari, a Herat merchant who fled the U.S. air attacks several weeks ago and is now a refugee living in Islamabad. “We could have picnics, play music, go to proper schools.”
Warlord Ismail Khan built a university, paved roads, created jobs, and opened trade with Pakistan and Iran. He imposed moderate Islamic law, requiring women to cover their hair but allowing them to work and attend segregated schools.
With the U.S. and its allies rushing to build a coalition government to replace the Taliban, experts say Khan will be a front-runner for a leadership post because his track record is cleaner and because he’s more tolerant than other commanders of the diverse ethnicities and of Pakistan. He has even expressed a willingness to make some accommodation for moderate members of the Taliban. “The Taliban are part of our nation. They have wives and children,” he said, speaking by satellite telephone. “I’m not interested in killing them. We need them because they are a part of us.”
In the years following the decade-long war with the Soviet Union, opposition commanders like Ahmed Shah Massood and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar turned their forces against Kabul, shelling the capital and breeding hatred of the alliance. Khan, by contrast, set up a peaceful fiefdom and named himself emir of six western provinces. He built a university, paved roads, created jobs, and opened trade with Pakistan and Iran. He imposed moderate Islamic law, requiring women to cover their hair but allowing them to work and attend segregated schools. He and his officials dispensed justice at open-air hearings throughout the villages.
Khan’s regime was popular but short-lived. After the Taliban captured Herat, Afghanistan’s cultural center, Khan fled his hometown for exile in Iran. In 1997, he returned, vowing to recapture the land he had lost. Instead, a local commander switched sides and handed him over to the Taliban. He spent nearly three years in prison, chained to a pipe, before escaping to Iran last year with the help of a loyal supporter. He returned from Iran in May to set up a base in the mountainous Ghor province to the east of Herat.
Then came the U.S. bombers. With the air strikes having weakened his enemy, Khan was able to seize the neighboring Baghdis province before taking Herat. He said he now plans to move south, using negotiating tactics to bring Taliban commanders to his side. Already, he claims, 33 Taliban commanders and 840 of their soldiers from Baghdis province have joined his forces.
Having captured Kabul, alliance forces are now looking toward the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, some 300 miles down a main road from Herat. Kandahar has been home to the Islamic regime’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Khan has in some ways operated outside the present conflict. Now 55, the veteran warlord known as the “Lion of Herat” has been careful to distance himself from the United States, which he said has not given him any military aid. But he hopes Washington has learned a lesson and will help reconstruct the nation after the fall of the Taliban. “We fought their war against the Soviets, and then they [the United States] abandoned us,” he said.
Khan, however, seems more tolerant when discussing the Taliban. He argues that those who have not committed atrocities should be included in any future government and should join the loya jirga, the grand assembly being organized by the deposed king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, in Rome. “We can’t persuade all Afghans to believe in a coalition government without them,” he said.
Despite Khan’s past as a relatively progressive leader, some Herat refugees in Pakistan have mixed feelings about another administration by the “good warlord.” They say Khan gradually lost touch with the populace as he became more preoccupied with the civil war in the rest of the country.
The merchant Ansari, who says he will go back as soon as the roads are safe, hopes Khan “won’t make the same mistakes again.”
Many Herat refugees say the mayor of Khan’s administration took bribes. They say officials collected money for electricity that never arrived and conscripted soldiers who often went unpaid. “We didn’t know how to feed our families,” said Nassar Ahmad, one of Khan’s former soldiers. “He lost our support after that.”
And some are unsure whether he can once again bring peace to Herat. “We don’t know when Ismail Khan comes, what will happen,” said a former teacher and mother of four who asked not to be named. “Will it be safe? These mujahideen [of the Northern Alliance] are so divided, you can’t predict.”
Abdulali Ahrary, an economics adviser during Khan’s administration who now lives in exile in Fremont, California, conceded that the warlord made mistakes but said he cares about Afghanistan more than any other alliance commander. “There was no law before he came and he had many challenges, not all of which he could overcome,” Ahrary said.
The commander has tried to reassure those he would lead. When the war is over, the soft-spoken Khan says, he wants representative democracy on a national and local level with former king Zahir Shah reinstated as the figurehead. And if Herat residents vote Khan into power, he plans to build a top-rated university and establish shuras, councils of advisers, on such matters as politics, economics, and defense.
“We are an educated and cultured people,” said Khan. “I want to see us shine.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 20, 2001