Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Back to Stopgap Appointments? The story behind the replacement of Herat’s governor

Fabrizio Foschini 15 min

Among the recent batch of governors’ changes, that of Herat’s Daud Shah Saba was probably the most conspicuous. Saba, a technocrat, had found himself in a confrontation with supporters of the pre-eminent local strongman, Minister for Energy and Water, Ismail Khan, and this conflict eventually led him to resign. So what is now in store for the major centre of western Afghanistan? While old and new networks keep positioning themselves in view of 2014 and the elections, and the city experiences for the first time economic stagnation and insecurity, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini analyses the difficulties that Herat’s political environment poses for finding, and keeping, a stable and effective governor.

Qalah-e Ekhtiaruddin, the Arg of Herat. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

On Thursday 27 June 2013, Daud Shah Saba resigned from his position as governor of Herat, one of the biggest and richest provinces of Afghanistan, after serving for almost three years.

Especially in the last year of his tenure, he had found himself at daggers drawn with the political faction linked to former governor and current Minister for Energy and Water, Ismail Khan. Saba had threatened to resign and tried to do so earlier, quitting at least once publicly in February 2013, but he was persuaded to stay on after local protests at his going and expressions of support from the central government. This time too there were demonstrations by Heratis urging him to stay, but his resignation – motivated by pressures and hurdles created by powerful individuals – was promptly accepted by Kabul and Karzai appointed a new person, the former Kunar governor Fazlullah Wahidi.

The dilemma of who’s to be governor

Daud Saba’s tenure in Herat has been a remarkable one in some ways. His appointment in late August 2010 did not make a big sensation. The relatively young and almost unknown president of a consulting firm, he was considered a technocrat put there to charm foreign investors (he is a geologist by trade and a Canadian citizen) in one of Afghanistan’s richest and most stable provinces, the most important in the Afghan west; he was also seen as somebody without political clout and possibly without much of a perspective career as a governor there. But when his position became more solid and he started to show signs of self-assertiveness, many observers took a closer look at him.

He then appeared – to this writer, at least – to have been the person through whom the government had finally overcome the seemingly inescapable impasse of having as Herat governor either somebody close to the main local strongman, or a complete outsider flown in by Kabul.

The first option would have had the obvious disadvantage of reversing costly state efforts at bringing this remote province under full state control(1) and antagonising other local powerbrokers. Furthermore, it risked involving the state institutions in local turf wars, with the consequent loss of prestige and impartiality for the government which has often proved a decisive boost for anti-state insurgent elements.

The second type of choice for a governor is also often stigmatised by locals, in Herat and elsewhere, as proving ineffective: a complete outsider, although impartial, does not understand the social and political landscape of the place, and he is naturally bound to be weak with regards to the whole set of local strongmen. This also implies he is unable to provide security – also because the same strongmen, usually with some leverage over this or that branch of the security forces, can make his life difficult if they wan. If on the other hand, this ‘alien’ is a strong political personality, he tends to be seen and resented by local elites as imposed by the central government in order to pursue a particular political line which often gets identified along communal or ethnic fault lines. This is particularly true of a place like Herat, which has a political life of its own, separate from the Kabul main stage.

Herati politics, without being altogether separate from Kabul, are distinctive. Herat has traditionally played a lead role in the cultural and economic spheres of life in Afghanistan, less significantly, however, in the domain of politics. The city’s eccentric position has meant that in times of armed competition for power – during the dynastic struggles of the nineteenth century as well as during the civil wars of the twentieth – its prominent players were usually excluded from attempts at occupying the seats of authority in Kabul (or if they tried, they failed) and were content with negotiating a deal with those in power there in exchange for some degree of autonomy.(2)

Today’s situation is in a way similar. At a moment when across the country, all major regional networks of powerbrokers are flexing their muscles to try to shape the new balance of power in Kabul in 2014 and with each and every one of them believing themselves to be the kingmakers, Herati figures still play an essentially secondary role. Moreover, the complex diversity of their political backgrounds and Herat’s varied human landscape have precluded the formation in Kabul of a single ‘Herati network’ bent on climbing to the higher echelons of power.

Conversely, Herati citizens are justly proud of their achievements in terms of the quality of life, governance and the city’s thriving economy and resent Kabul’s interference in how the province is run at least as much as they had come to resent the unchecked prominence of a single, local master – Ismail Khan – with his iron hand against potential competitors and his not completely shiny record as a commander and autonomous ruler during the civil war of the 1990s.

So, following a batch of weak or controversial governors drawn from the outside, it looked as if Kabul wanted to try and change game and appoint somebody who dwelt at the crossroads of different ways of being an apt governor of Herat. Daud Shah Saba is both quintessentially Herati and, as a Popalzai Pashtun, naturally perceived as close to President Karzai; somebody with local roots and at the same time a technocrat with a clear past, including a higher education – a quality which the Herati people definitely appreciate.

Indeed, even as a Pashtun in a Tajik-dominated environment, (3) Saba, as a ‘son of Herat’ who in exile during the 1990s used to contribute articles to American Afghan magazines listing the province’s monuments and kinds of grapes, was not perceived as imposed from the outside. Moreover, and quite importantly so, he was a young leader who could have been expected to inaugurate a long period of stability.

Fear closes onto business

Stability did not increase in the last three years, however, although this was hardly the single-handed fault of anybody. The insurgents, previously a very low threat in Herat (with the exception of Shindand district), staged a comeback in the field and in the people’s minds, thanks to a few spectacular attacks against ISAF and the UN in the city and to the recruitment pool of disgruntled ex-mujahedin, jobless youth and criminal networks in the remoter districts of this vast province. The threat of attacks created fears and concerns in a population which had been getting used more to speculating on the price of export and import items or the cost of electricity for local factories, than on the risks of travelling or taking up a job with the government (read our previous blog here).

The once thriving economy of this border city was badly affected by a months’ long Iranian blockade of the trans-border fuel trade during the winter of 2010-2011 and eventually by the Iranian economic crisis in late 2012 (read here and here). Shortages and high prices of fuel and electricity have crippled productivity and domestic factors such as criminality also played against the full development of what has usually been, throughout Afghan history, one of the main trading and manufacturing centres of the country (read our previous blog here). During a recent visit, the situation was plainly laid out to me by my cab driver, even before I managed to get to the city from the airport:

Joblessness is at its peak. All traders and factory owners are scared to death by the kidnappings so they are closing down and relocating abroad – those who can to the West or the Emirates, the others to Iran. And the people who lose their job turn into kidnappers.

Hardly any meeting in Herat when I was there in Nawruz (late March) failed to bring up the same point: insecurity, real or perceived, is eating at the roots of Herat’s stability – that is, business. The tragic outcome of the kidnapping of 10 year old Ali Sina Nurzai earlier this year brought this time-old plight of Herat to national levels of audience (see here and here). The boy was brutally killed after his family had partially paid the ransom, arguably because he would have been able to identify his kidnappers, among whom it turned out were the very bodyguards who had been put in charge of his security.

The instance of a school-child with bodyguards is not so out of the ordinary. Ali Sina’s family is certainly wealthy, but his case can not be taken as an extreme example: as the head of the Provincial Council, Sayyed Wahid Qatali, told AAN, ‘No successful businessman in Herat can afford to send his kids to school without an armed escort.’ Also, the effects of the kidnapping industry went at times beyond the mere realm of criminality and organised protests against the inability of the security forces to address this problem have been used as a potent tool of political pressure, leading last year to the removal of the provincial police chief. The province is still one of the safest in Afghanistan, but even so, insecurity whether of political or criminal origin has crept closer to the city gates and into the lives of Herati people, making the political landscape more tense, too.

A clash of networks

In the midst of this troubled situation, Governor Saba maintained a good public profile during the first part of his tenure and it was difficult to hear somebody criticising him too harshly.(4) His standing changed drastically during the last year when Saba became one of the main adversaries of the political network loyal to Ismail Khan. He found himself pitted especially against the mayor of Herat, Salim Taraki, over the construction of 40 kilometres of roads (read here and here): each accused the other of corruption and the work was blocked for a long time. This led Saba to offer his first resignation in protest and even to reports of his replacement, premature as they turned out).

The first and main type of criticism that appeared regarding Daud Saba was oriented towards his personality more than his policy-making. The blame would be directed at his lack of strength and wiliness and came from many in Herat, whether neutral, hostile or even supportive of Saba, in interviews with AAN. One frequent comment was that he, ‘tries to make sure the law is respected before he makes sure he himself is respected.’ This could also be taken as a sign of the uncertain times and high crime rates which have struck the city: a sort of nostalgia for the rough, but effective ways of the former mujahedin authorities may be creeping up among sectors of the population. As a politician otherwise moderately critical of Ismail Khan, like Engineer Nur Ahmad Barez, head of the Shura-ye Hamgarai Ejtemai-ye Herat (Council for Social Cohesiveness), put it when Saba was still in power:

The governor is a good guy, he is educated, but he has no drive. He has grown up in America, he wakes up late and goes to bed early. And he does not come out of his compound, he does not mix with the people. Ismail Khan used to hold darbar (public audience) until late at night, and if needed he would travel to Obeh (a district some 100km west of Herat city) and come back at 2am.

Saba, instead, preferred to refer citizens in search of audience to the competent offices of his administration. Coupled with the flickering attitude of the central government whose support was not always forthcoming against unfriendly local powerbrokers who had their own patrons in Kabul, Saba’s non-traditional political persona decisively contributed to the governor’s inability to overcome the obstacles put in his way by these rivals. Saba had in fact a constituency problem. Praised by many, he could not count on an exclusive and devout network of supporters in Herat.

Among the various networks that constitute the political landscape in Herat, he could have been expected to receive support by secular, Pashtun-oriented networks like that depending on Humayun Azizi, the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, or the Afghan Millat party. Azizi however, a staunch Karzai loyalist, seemed not to get along very well with the governor. Nor was Afghan Millat particularly interested in aligning with him. In fact, as a ‘Pashtun light’, as some in Herat jokingly referred to him, Saba could not apply for support from what is often considered the long hand of the Pashtun chauvinist faction of the central government in ethnically mixed areas (and anyway that faciton is not particularly strong in Herat). The support he received from Herati National Security Advisor, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, was more effective in the milieu of Kabul than in Herat itself. In Herat, the governor could as of late count on some degree of cooperation from the head of the Ulama Council, Mawlawi Khodaidad, more out of their common hostility to Ismail Khan than because of any ideological proximity.

Quite surprisingly, the local constituency that ended up openly supporting Governor Saba during the last, quarrelsome months of his tenure was the former mujahedin, Tajik-dominated Shura-ye Hamgarai (previously known also as Shura-ye Tajikan). Many of its members share a past history of affiliation to Ismail Khan going back to the days of the jihad. Recently, with the input of many prominent families of traders from the traditional city elite, the Shura has gradually grown apart from the more militant supporters of the old Herat strongman, who in the meantime, has started becoming more vocal about his appetite for a renewed role on his home turf.

A turning point was the gathering organised by Ismail Khan on 1 November 2012 when he announced the creation of a mujahedin council, ostensibly to defend the province from Taleban inroads (read our previous blog here). The governor was among the most vocal and effective critics of that initiative, which badly backfired against the Minister of Energy and Water. The Shura-ye Hamgaran also remained cold to the idea of a mujahedin council and took a ‘legalistic’ stance against it.

The next moment of tension was the annual election of the head of the Herat Provincial Council (PC), in early February 2013. The incumbent, Dr Abdul Zahir Faizzada, a prominent member of the Shura-ye Hamgarai and a former ally of Ismail Khan, had apparently fallen out of favour with his old patron who was now supporting the younger Sayed Wahid Qatali.(5) The first round of the election ended in a draw and was followed by a second which gave the victory to Qatali. However, the second round took place rather unusually in the IDLG office in Kabul in the presence of Wahid Qatali and 12 out of 19 other members of the council, all of whom voted for Qatali (read here). This was more than enough to give credit to allegations of fraud and political pressure and, for a while, against the background of protests by the supporters of Faizzada, Governor Saba refused to meet or acknowledge the new head of the provincial council.

This was reciprocated when Faizzada’s supporters mobilised for the governor at the time he was ready to resign because of the roads construction impasse in the same February 2013. But the lukewarm support Daud Saba found among some of Herat’s more grassroots political players came with a cost. Progressively, the governor got stuck into local political competition, gradually losing his impartiality in the eyes of the population and, at the same time, failing to impose himself as a major political force on other, more traditional, competitors. He ended up caught in a highly polarised factional rivalry without completely giving up the ‘decent’ codes of behaviour of his intellectual background and without having built a team for himself. In this sense, he became a liability for the faction who had allied with him lately and, after a few months of quarrelling, he probably decided that he was not willing to take it anymore – unless he was expecting to entice some support from Kabul with his gesture, a support which never materialised.

Where does this leave Herat?

‘Whoever will come after him will be worse,’ said Dr Faizzada laconically in March. Back then, the possibility of a replacement of the governor sounded slightly more than rumour. It turned real with the arrival of the new governor, Fazlullah Wahidi, on 3 July 2013.

At the level of national politics, one is tempted to identify Saba’s replacement as the outcome of a compact between Karzai and Ismail Khan in view of the latter’s support for the president’s team, whoever its candidate may turn out to be, in next year’s presidential election. It is difficult to argue in favour of such a linear correlation, however, because of the many uncertainties which still surround Karzai’s endorsement of a successor and the role that Ismail Khan and other jihadi leaders may play in this respect (see the recent announcement of Sayyaf’s candidacy by them).

More foreseeable are developments at the local level. Fazlullah Wahidi, who was governor of Kunar for seven years and stems from Nangarhar, will probably prove again a total outsider who cannot cope easily with local powerbrokers. He may also not help assuage fears among segments of the city’s population that this is a politically or ethnically-driven appointment by Kabul. Wahidi himself revealed an insight into the reasons for his appointment when, the day of his arrival, he reportedly said, “I was sent to Herat in order to take a rest.” He probably meant it as a compliment to the stability and security of the province after almost six years spent in war-ridden Kunar and he is probably sincere in his relief as to his new position. Still, this does not bode well for the city and the province the governor is required to administer. It may, however, play in favour of the other local authorities with a more grassroots origin – very much willing to step in and increase their say over local governance – if the governor takes long siestas.

Indeed, Wahidi’s appointment does not seem a great deal either for Herat or the central government which is likely to see the reputation of its chief representative there diminish.(6) If somebody has to gain from the situation, it could actually be Ismail Khan’s faction. They have seen a potential long-term rival with local roots replaced by a total outsider who will be much easier to deal with. The ambiguous reception given to the new governor by the head of the provincial council, Wahid Qatali, as reported by Ariana TV on 3 July, is telling:

The people of Herat Province welcome all the governors who are appointed by the central government and extend all possible supports [sic]. However, we hope the people do not regret their support for the governors.

And then, the assassination of Mohammad Wali Taheri, brother of National Security Advisor, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, last Wednesday, 17 July, in Karokh district adds a further mystery to recent developments in Herat province. Although Spanta himself has unequivocally blamed the Taleban and their Pakistani minders for the killing, arguing that this was retaliation for his recent criticism of the Taleban Qatar office, it is possible that the attack had more local roots and rationales. Locals interviewed by AAN hinted at a long-standing feud between Spanta’s family and some armed groups from neighbouring Kushk-e Kohna district, previously in power during the mujahedin rule and now turned ‘Taleban’ (the perpetrators seem to have met their fate as of today, 24 July read here). This seems quite realistic: theirs would certainly not be an isolated case in this vast province which is full of more or less demobilised mujahedin fronts. The question is rather why did they choose to target Spanta’s brother right now, after he spent seven years in his vulnerable position of district assistant attorney and at a time when Karokh district has been quieter, compared to periods of more dangerous armed activity there in recent years. The killing seems to have been symbolic, intended to scare Spanta away from pursuing a certain course of action, be it at the national or local level.

To conclude, the ‘election’ of the head of the provincial council in February and the dismissal of governor Saba were both successes for Ismail Khan. He can now claim to have won the second round of the long match to reassert his hegemony over Herat after the setback of his initiative to establish a mujahedin council backfiring, due to his being too visible and too controversial. Unless there are further changes in the political landscape of the province, affecting, say, the mayor’s position. The road to any new equilibrium, post-2014, is still long and winding. What is certain is that a not contemptible attempt at finding a stable and efficient governor for Herat has, for the moment, failed.

(1) The autonomy enjoyed in Herat by Ismail Khan as a self-appointed governor retaining most of the custom revenues was brought to an end between March and September 2004 in a forceful way, which saw first his position weakened by clashes with the national army (which cost the life of his son Mirwais Sadiq, then the Minister for Civil Aviation) and a concerted attack by rival militias, then his demotion and enticement into Kabul as a member of the Cabinet. Whichever of the several interpretations of the events of 2004 one decides to endorse (read here or here), subsequent efforts at keeping Ismail Khan in Kabul, literally bound to his chair of Minister of Water and Energy, which he has occupied for eight years now, irrespective of whether or not parliament had endorsed him (read our blog here) have been partially successful. The change in 2004 was realistically saluted by many in Herat as the end of a sort of paternalistic dictatorship which had withheld the prosperous city from many of the new liberties and developments introduced in Kabul by the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001. It is assumed by many that Ismail Khan would prefer to go back to his former position in Herat.

(2) In contrast, also given their often highly educated background, the city elites have produced many government officials who served the central government with distinction in times of peace.

(3) Herat is of course a Persian-speaking city since time immemorial and its people are in their majority either Sunni or Shia Farsiwans (the Sunni majority among them is more likely to identify as Tajik nowadays). However, the province hosts a consistent Pashtun minority, not only in some outlying districts (where they can also be in the majority, like in Shindand or Adraskan) but among the city elites as well. Many Pashtun figures have ruled the city since the early 18th century. Herat in fact got its independence from Safavid Persia in 1717 under a lineage of Abdali chieftains – often in an autonomous way from Kabul. The epitome of the Persianised (or better, ‘Heratised’) Pashtun ruler is Yar Mohammad Alikozai (ruling 1842-1851).

(4) The author remembers a chorus of positive comments on the newly appointed governor when he was in Herat shortly before and during the parliamentary elections of 2010 – including from candidate Halim Taraki, brother of Salim Taraki  who was Herat’s mayor and Saba’s future bitterest rival. This was all the more remarkable because elections are usually a time when accusations, especially against local authorities, are the most commonly exchanged currency.

(5) Sayed Wahid Qatali comes from a very prominent family of former mujahedin and long-term Ismail Khan’s associates. His brother runs a security company which, alone, has apparently managed to retain contracts on the road to Shindand in face of the deployment of the Afghan Public Protection Force and the dissolution of private companies. His father is the founder of the Museum of Jihad in Herat where Ismail Khan’s collection of war relics is on display. Wahid Qatali is young and educated and apparently independently-minded: in 2012, he ran for the Provincial Council chair against Faizzada and against Ismail Khan’s better advice. One year later, when Ismail Khan switched his support from Faizzada to Qatali, he apparently had troubles in convincing Qatali to fall in line and participate again in the election. At any rate, the strong ties of his family with Ismail Khan can hardly be denied.

(6) An article appeared on 17 July in Mandegar criticising the new governor for dismissing officials who had been appointed through free competition, like his spokesperson and chief of office, for stopping work on the city Art Gallery, and for reverting to the practice of giving audiences to the citizens himself instead of directing them to the relevant offices as the previous governor had done. It is unlikely however that another change of governor will happen soon, as from a limit of six months before the elections of April 2014, no fresh changes can be effected at this level of sub-national governance.


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Fabrizio Foschini

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