The phenomenon of Afghan strongmen visiting their home provinces and delivering fiery speeches to their ‘traditional’ constituencies is all but new. Still, it has intensified as of late, as the transition process is said to progress and the next presidential election approaches. The most recent rendition given by the Minister of Water and Energy, Ismail Khan, in his home turf of Herat – where he harangued against the foreign forces’ ineffectiveness and announced the re-mobilisation of mujahedin units – was particularly strong-worded. However, it has left many listeners in Herat unconvinced and triggered strong reactions in Kabul. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini talked to some of Ismail Khan’s ‘natural public’ in Herat and reflects here on the impact of his statements and the overall value for Afghan politics of similar behaviour on the part of former commanders.
When Ismail Khan, Minister of Water and Energy in most of Karzai’s cabinets, travelled to Herat, the city he had twice governed semi-autonomously (1992–95 and 2001–04, using the title ‘Amir of Western Afghanistan’), and addressed a large (male) assembly – a self-proclaimed mujahedin council – on 1 November, he must have thought it was all right. At the gathering, the grizzled mujahedin leader basically made it known that he utterly disregards whatsoever role was played by the ISAF mission during the last eleven years and actually considers it detrimental to security in Afghanistan. The only way to save Afghanistan from ‘foreign conspiracies’ after 2014 would be to re-mobilise mujahedin units that were unduly sidelined during the past decade.
Not only had Ismail Khan summoned mujahedin councils in the past, most remarkably in 1987, when he imposed himself as the paramount resistance leader in the West, and in 1994, when he tried to present an alternative political pole to the stalemate of the civil war in Kabul, but there seems to be a growing trend of similar gatherings nowadays. Many other Afghan politicians from the jihad and civil war periods, in many cases with a position in the current state institutions, have during the past months and years regularly visited their regional fiefdoms and from there made similarly strong public statements about this or that. Be it to convey a precise political message to their townsmen, to Kabul or to the world or just to vent their frustrations, there are recent remarkable examples of similar speeches, usually involving the not-so-veiled threat of re-mobilising former comrades and taking local security into one’s own hands. This trend was initiated by Rashid Dostum as early as 2007 (read here and here) and more recently followed by no less than the First Vice-President Qasem Fahim (read here).
Ismail Khan’s last remarks, however, stand out for their crudity and originality (find them here and here):
They collected all our weapons, our artillery and tanks, and put them on the rubbish heap. … Instead, they brought Dutch girls, French girls, girls from Holland, they armed American girls, they brought white-skinned Western soldiers, and black-skinned American soldiers, and they thought by doing all this they would bring security here but they failed.
The search for a ‘macho’ undertone, that of a former commander who has fought the Taleban (and the Soviets and other mujahedin before that) in his prime and now utters his contempt at the inability of others to do so, is quite apparent. Referring to the NATO troops as ‘girls’ must be interpreted as derogatory,(1) and pointing out the presence of blacks among those troops is in the best-case scenario an indicator of the will to exploit the puzzlement that many Afghans experience when confronted with the wide variety of foreign countries involved in the ISAF or – in the worst – to play on a remnant of pre-modern racism in Afghan society. But Ismail Khan’s statements were not merely outlandish, they were outstanding as a brazen attempt at reversing a narrative which had, until now, been accepted by large strata of the Afghan society: that of the beneficial impact of disarmament and demobilisation programs in reducing the level of violence or, at least, of their overall positive value in terms of principles.(2)
However, reactions from the centre to Ismail Khan’s utterances have been strong. The Meshrano Jirga immediately picked up his speech and condemned it with strong tones. The senators particularly lambasted declarations by Ismail Khan that the registration for the creation of mujahedin units is in progress, terming them an ‘illegal military force’. While it was possible to recognise personal or political interest behind some of the comments (Senator Sher Mohammad Akhundzada from Helmand has old grudges with Ismail Khan, while the progressive Belqis Roshan from Farah simply dislikes warlords), support for Ismail Khan seems to have been pretty weak in both houses of Parliament. With the lone exception of Qazi Hanafi, a MP from Herat known as a staunch supporter of Ismail Khan, few spoke a word in defence of his statements, while some suggested summoning him for explanations or taking measures against him. The Meshrano Jirga in particular made an interesting point against the improper use of the terms Jihad and mujahedin for ‘personal political agendas’ – this coming from a rather unexpected direction, as the Senate has often been perceived as the place where former mujahedin and conservatives have the upper hand.
At a more local level, Herat Governor Daud Saba and his spokesperson Mohiuddin Nuri were likewise quick to denounce Ismail Khan’s statements, adding their concern that the mujahedin council has started illegal distribution of weapons to ‘its own people’, something of which, they allege, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) has ample proof (read here and here).(3) On 12 November, Herat even witnessed a large gathering of civil society representatives, tribal elders and other prominent residents who convened to denounce Ismail Khan’s statements as a hint at his plans for forcefully taking power again after 2014. Local authorities and politicians opposed to Ismail Khan may have helped to arrange this gathering, but its mere taking place constitutes a blow to the Herati strongman’s prestige.(4)
But what about the reception among the class of people Ismail Khan was addressing – former mujahedin among the Herati population? Herat’s location, rather set apart from Kabul, has given its inhabitants a distinct flavour in their way of thinking and behaving politically (see our previous blog). The city experienced an economic revival after 2001, and the security situation has not been alarming until recent years. Some insurgent attacks inside the city, and more so the increasing insecurity in rural districts of the province,(5) can prove disturbing enough for its notables to feel pressure from the Taleban. The western province could thus be thought to constitute a favourable environment for attempts by regional players to stage a comeback at least as much as in some northern provinces of the country. Considering that Herat is also a religiously conservative environment where many influential families supported the mujahedin struggle, it is all the more remarkable that reception to Ismail Khan’s words has been not altogether positive even among this class of people.
It is not that Ismail Khan’s initiative has been an isolated attempt. Reportedly, there is a lot going on inside the mujahedin milieu in the West: Ismail Khan has been actively re-mobilising commanders from several districts of the province – an ALP program will soon be started in Injil district where he still commands a lot of influence – but his network has not gained much in status or cohesion. Sitting beside him and featuring prominently at the mujahedin assembly on 1 November was Abdullah Charsi (his nom de guerre meaning the ‘hashish smoker’), a former highway robber and insurgent with a past as a truck company owner and links to both the Taleban and to Ismail Khan, who made it into the news last year by joining the government and becoming a colonel in the Afghan National Border Police (ANBP) (read here and here). He has cut short his assignment in Shindand and is now back in the transportation business – busy protecting logistic convoys through Gozara district and his own turf of Pashtun Zarghun – officially as ANBP but allegedly with some more money involved. Other commanders associated more or less directly with Ismail Khan in recent times have even more controversial records, like Mulla Mustafa in Chesht-e Sharif district or the successors of slain Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a former mayor of Herat who went to the insurgents’ side and was killed in 2009. They are still resisting the government in Gozara district just to the south of the city.
According to local analysts interviewed by AAN, many former mujahedin do not fully trust Ismail Khan’s initiative, and although they would favour a renewed role for themselves and a mujahedin council, they do not necessarily accept his leadership and agenda (some, like the AfghanHezbullah party, an Iranian-backed mujahedin group active mainly in Herat and Kandahar during the anti-Soviet Jihad, even took part in the following anti-Ismail Khan gathering mentioned above). Revealing this attitude were the words of Haji Abdur Rahman, a former mujahedin commander, still politically active, not opposed to Ismail Khan on political terms, and usually a supporter of any initiative that the local mujahedin elites could organise to withstand what they perceive as an intrusion by the central government:
Ismail Khan has been campaigning for himself in front of those competing to be the next president of Afghanistan. He wants to show that he has people and power, that he could be an asset for the elections and must be rewarded by giving him power in the West. The mujahedin army is a completely wrong idea. Look, do you think we can go in the sangar (in the trenches) with our rifles again? We are old and whitened. We won’t be doing that. Also, it is a very dangerous idea. Arming mujahedin units means bringing back Afghanistan to 30 years ago, to a very hard period. People now are happy, they have economic activities, they can lead their lives, they just want decent jobs, normal jobs.
Was Ismail Khan’s attempt a failure then? The United States – and other ISAF contingents present in the West – do not trust Ismail Khan in view of his past association with Iran, and they may be cold-hearted towards his activities – notwithstanding their recurrent and perplexing idea of the ‘need to work with local power brokers’. Ismail Khan’s relationship with the central government does not seem to be at its best either: he was already under pressure last spring after the High Office for Oversight of Anti-Corruption (HOOAC) announced that it would investigate land grabs committed by him in Herat (read more here and here).(6)
Some members of the Parliament claimed that Ismail Khan’s mention of having had detailed discussions with Karzai on the issue of the mujahedin council confirmed the existence of a government-sponsored plan to put together such a body with the help of some cooperative mujahedin leaders, like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – in order to better face the political game after 2014. But if it was, as seems more probable, an exploit aimed at more localised political goals, it seems to have turned out to be a weak one.
Indeed, it is apparent that Ismail Khan was forced to quickly retract his previous statements to save his hide. In a press conference on 10 November he already stated that the allegation of distributing weapons was a conspiracy to defame him, and he called for an investigation declaring that he was ready to stand trial if it was proven (he also asked that if proven false, governor Saba should be dismissed). More importantly, he argued that the creation of mujahedin units was not to be understood as a replacement of the present Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), but as an auxiliary corps(7) to make sure that the current institutions, which he termed ‘the result of 30 years of Jihad’, would not collapse (adding that he had not come from the US or Europe to leave this country tomorrow, if a collapse would happen – according to the BBC Monitoring Afghanistan).
However, this faux pas does not mean that the old mujahed has just gone senile and that his acting does not make sense. With the security transition and the 2014 elections approaching, there is strained political behaviour on the part of many parties and factions: on one hand they join legal political processes like the Democratic Charter signed in Kabul by the Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions (also known as G 20), on the other they sharpen their tools for more unorthodox action at the local level. That is, they try to boost their constituencies’ expectations and fears with dramatic speeches, while they simultaneously arrange for armed power to back up their political claims – either by lobbying for ALP projects, which keeps it under the terms of law, or in more sketchy ways, by establishing ‘free lance’ militias.
If this indicates that most of the political players will have a vested interest in continuing to play by the ‘democratic’ rules at the central stage after 2014, also to protect their lucrative businesses based in the capital, fears that fair play could be wanting on the provincial level often appear justified. Unfortunately, the narrative developed by Ismail Khan’s ilk of being able to prevent the Taleban from coming to power locally if the ANSF do not deliver and to protect their scared constituencies will provide a perfect cover up and many an occasion to regulate accounts with old rivals and enforce armed supremacy.
However, the negative reactions to Ismail Khan’s statements also show that many Afghans are concerned about this perspective, not only those ‘visionaries’ of the civil society and the unarmed and powerless sections in the broader society sure of bearing the brunt of whatever violence, but everybody who is interested in preserving the little business, political space and ‘normal life’ that is there.
Ismail Khan’s status in Herat has historically been at his highest when his personal rule has coincided with the interests for peace, security and trade opportunities entertained by the city’s economic elites. It does not now seem to be quite so, and with an Ismail Khan located ‘eccentrically’ with respect to the city, that is, bound to his ministry in Kabul and harassed by political adversaries there, and more and more aggressively trying to re-assert his claims to local power before the 2014 ‘endgame’, this coincidence of interests does not seem bound to develop automatically.
Then, Ismail Khan may still have retained a network of commanders in the West, but he has no real political weight inside Jamiat-e Islami, his original jihadi party, at the national level. He finds himself in an awkward position: rather unwanted by Karzai and the governing team while not feeling confident to embrace the opposition in a secondary position. Also, being a minister of the central government is proving a sort of liability for him, at least on political grounds. Not only was appointing him a way to effect his removal from his provincial fiefdom in 2004 – something that triggered a military confrontation – under a façade of normality, but it is now possibly working as a tool for control in another way. Being dismissed from his ministry position would be a serious loss of prestige for Ismail Khan, and retaliating violently (if that happens) would prove dangerous and certainly not help to ingratiate the Herati elites, or the international community, in regard to his future political role in the West. In the end, Ismail Khan’s complaints of having been sidelined may turn out to be more than mere self-victimisation for propaganda purposes.
(1) Unless Ismail Khan’s recollections went to the past decades and to the presence of foreign – usually young – women among the medical personnel assisting the mujahedin during their struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s. But these female foreign doctors or nurses, who would usually receive an honorific Muslim name and be ‘adopted’ by the Afghan fighters, are still highly respected and fondly remembered (no ambiguity is meant here, as Afghans do not joke about that – apart from some intentional political slander between rival mujahedin groups) by former mujahedin. So it is definitely safer to assume a more generic sexist slur in Ismail Khan’s ranting – as it is often heard in Afghanistan: ‘Are you a girl!?’
(2) Of course, jihadi tanzims and other armed groups have usually had reserves against these processes, but in view of the broader popular acceptance of them in post-2001 Afghanistan, they had to oppose them secretly by storing hidden caches of weapons. As of late, personalities linked to these groups have started rejecting these processes in a more outright way. I recently heard the same type of comments from the governor of Badakhshan, who, although himself a Jamiati, is supposedly a much less militant character than Ismail Khan, having an academic rather than a commander background.
(3) Governor Saba had already countered the jihadi rhetoric employed by Ismail Khan when he recently ruled that no streets of the western city were to be named after dead individuals, unless their death dates back at least 50 years. While this may be another step of the ‘policy of oblivion’ pursued by some sections of the state apparatus and intelligentsia – like the decision not to include the past four decades in history textbooks for schools – it deals a direct blow to Ismail Khan, as one of the martyrs to possibly be remembered in Herat’s toponymy is Mirwais Sadiq, Ismail Khan’s son killed during the state-sponsored removal of his father from the governorship in 2004.
(4) Ismail Khan also opposes other provincial authorities who have evidently been appointed by the centre without his approval. The criticism that the relatively new chief of police, Abdul Ghaffar Sayedzada, is facing from the Provincial Council is believed by some to be politically motivated and backed by Ismail Khan.
(5) According to Herat’s Provincial Council, the five districts of Obe, Adraskan, Shindand, Keshk-e Kohna and Robat-e Sangi have reached a critical stage and are on the verge of falling into the hands of insurgents.
(6) HOOAC chairman Azizullah Ludin and Ismail Khan are both Heratis, were initially close to each other but became rivals when, in 2003, Ludin positioned himself to replace Ismail Khan as the province’s governor. Ludin was head of the Independent Election Commission from 2004 to 2010.
(7) He may have had a point about his original intention as to these units, as the name he had mentioned at the mujahedin meeting, Lashkar-e Ittihad, stands for ‘Army of Unity’, so it would not really fit plans for carving out autonomous power in the western region. But, of course, pursuing overtly divisive politics is taboo in Afghanistan, and everybody is careful to avoid doing so – apart from some clumsy foreigners, it seems.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020