On September 11, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai dismissed Ismail Khan, widely known as the “warlord” of Herat province in western Afghanistan. The move came one day before Karzai announced the programs and policies for his next term of office. Karzai’s decision was believed to be designed to counter his image as a lame-duck president. He also named Abdul Qadir Alam to replace M. Ibrahim Malikzada as governor of Ghore province. The outgoing governor had grabbed that position by ousting a governor appointed by Kabul. He was also said to have helped Amanullah Khan, a rival commander in Herat province, to dislodge Ismail Khan. The Ghore governor is also a warlord with a private militia (VOA, September 11). Ismail Khan was offered — and rejected — a job with the central government as minister of mines and industries.
There had long been speculation about the impending dismissal of Ismail Khan. One scenario suggests that the August 14 attack on Khan was a test to gauge his strength. Amanullah Khan, his rival, got to within 15 miles of Herat before he was stopped. Amanullah Khan eventually “agreed” to be taken to Kabul where he remains under house arrest. The attack left Ismail Khan badly shaken and plainly vulnerable. The stage was now set for his removal.
The United States and Afghan officials subsequently mediated a truce and dispatched a sizeable force to act as a buffer between the warring factions. The U.S.-led coalition forces have much at stake in Herat, and they would do everything in their power to prevent its destabilization. If any power vacuum or social unrest emerges, Iran would willingly fill it with its own proteges, just as Pakistan influences some southern and eastern provinces.
On September 12, one day after the dismissal, approximately one hundred people ransacked and torched UN and Afghan human rights offices in Herat. Reports gave casualties as seven dead and more than a dozen others — including American soldiers — injured. Most of the dead had participated in the riots.
Although Karzai deserves credit for dismissing the governor and securing a strategically important province, the real work was done by Zalmai Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador. Khalilzad brokered the ceasefire between the warlords in mid-August, informed Ismail Khan of his dismissal, and later urged him to call off his supporters from the streets. Ismail Khan eventually went on local television and asked the citizens not to destroy property or create instability (Free Press News Services, September 13).
Despite his recent opposition, Ismail Khan was undeniably a staunch opponent of Soviet control of his country. He is a former army lieutenant who started the anti-Soviet riots of Herat in the early stages of the resistance, during which about 30,000 people were massacred in one of the bloodiest uprisings of the Afghan war of liberation. He has dominated the military as well as political scenes in Herat for much of the last twenty-five years. He is a member of the Northern Alliance that, with coalition support, brought an end to the Taliban regime. His removal from Herat may leave that part of the country vulnerable to Taliban infiltration.
Khan could cause further trouble for the central government, but it is very unlikely that he would. First, the new governor, Sayeed Mohammed Khairkhwa is a fellow Herati, and both are members of the same political party. Khairkhah is a former ambassador to Tehran and most recently was ambassador to Ukraine. Second, any move by Ismail Khan would destabilize a region that he long fought to save, secure, and reconstruct. Opposition now would undermine his own achievements. Third, Khan is known as one of a handful of Afghan leaders who were instrumental in the resistance’s success against the Soviets and consequently the demise of that superpower. He would not want to tarnish his reputation.
Above all the people of Herat, like most Afghans, are tired of war. They will not fight against one of their own. They would be even more cooperative if the new governor relaxes some of the more extreme measures of Ismail Khan, such as restrictions on women and their roles in society.
As the Afghan presidential election approaches, President Karzai has scored a major success, albeit with help from a powerful friend. It is a scenario that will be difficult for him to repeat in other regions of Afghanistan.