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Ex-Warlord: Even 'Centuries’ Of Foreign Presence Cannot Fix Afghanistan

Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan

HERAT, Afghanistan -- Ismail Khan stares into a gold-framed mirror, fidgeting for a long time with the checkered keffiyeh tied around his head. He then combs his long white beard before sitting on an ornamented armchair in his glittering guestroom.

Khan, one of Afghanistan’s most powerful former warlords, is a man conscious of his image. For decades, he has been among a group of influential warlords and former mujahedin commanders shaping modern Afghan history in defeating the Soviet Union, battling the Taliban, and turning on one another in a devastating civil war -- all before being given senior roles within a UN-backed government in a nod to national unity after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

But having accumulated vast power and wealth for over a decade, many of those same strongmen find themselves sidelined by the national unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat who assumed power after a flawed presidential election in 2014.

“One of the things that the Americans and the current government have tried to do is to keep the mujahedin out of power,” Khan told RFE/RL in a recent interview at his home in Herat, a city of strategic, commercial, and cultural significance located in western Afghanistan.

Mujahedin is a reference to former Islamist groups who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.

“The government is weak. A weak government cannot share power with powerful figures,” added the 71-year-old, a stern, stocky man with piercing eyes.

Ashraf Ghani (file photo)
Ashraf Ghani (file photo)

Khan has been one of the most vocal critics of the central government in Kabul despite serving in several key posts. Under former President Hamid Karzai he was minister of electricity and water and governor of Herat Province, titles that fail to adequately capture the power that Khan wielded in western Afghanistan.

Many here address Khan as emir, or king. His many titles include “Emir of western Afghanistan” and “Lion of Herat,” labels that speak to the enormous influence he wields in this part of Afghanistan, an economically thriving, relatively peaceful region surrounded by lawlessness and poverty and abutting the Iranian border.

Khan has been accused in the past of running Herat and surrounding regions as a personal fiefdom and withholding from the government millions of dollars in customs revenues from the lucrative cross-border trade with Iran.

His wealth is on display at his three-story marble palace in central Herat. On the grounds of his grand residence, Khan has a garden of exotic birds. His home is heavily guarded by towering concrete blast walls and a dozen soldiers carrying automatic rifles.

United States ‘Must Leave’

“The Americans should leave,” Khan said. “There can only be peace and security in Afghanistan if there is a just government in place that is backed by the majority of the people and is chosen through elections or a loya jirga (national council). It cannot be reliant on a foreign military.”

He added: “If foreign forces want to stay in this country for decades or even centuries and keep a friendly government in place [in Kabul], there will never be peace and security. Freedom, independence, and religion is in the blood of our people.”

Many military experts predict the Kabul government could collapse and the Taliban would reconquer large parts of the country if all Western forces left Afghanistan. Since the pullout of most NATO forces in 2014, Afghan security forces have failed to fend off the Taliban and are suffering record casualties. The Taliban are now thought to control or contest more territory than at any time since 2001.

Khan acknowledged that a complete pullout would “create problems.” But he argued that a more legitimate government in Kabul could “stand up to the Taliban.”

“The Taliban wouldn’t have any other option but to side with the people,” he said.

Sporadic peace talks with Taliban representatives over the past decade have failed to yield any breakthroughs, with the militant group claiming it will not negotiate until all foreign forces withdraw from the country.

Khan suggested that former mujahedin could fill the vacuum left by departing foreign troops.

In 2012, he called on former fighters to reorganize and defend the country. He said foreign forces, which he described as "girls," had failed in their fight against the Taliban.

Khan maintained he was still “ready” to remobilize his militias if given the green light from Kabul.

Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah
Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah

Afghan Divisions

Khan argued that Taliban members should form part of an inclusive government representing all the country's long-warring ethnic groups and political factions, including the Taliban.

“I think we need a new government before this one collapses," Khan said. "We need fresh elections or an interim administration. We need a new president that is supported by the people. People don’t support the current government."

Ethnic tensions have escalated in the country and Ghani has been accused of fueling the frictions by surrounding himself with Pashtun politicians and sidelining Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the number two in the national unity government and an ethnic Tajik.

Khan said fresh elections should be held to elect a new president. Those calls have been mirrored by other former warlords and political figures who have lost their influence in the current administration.

But analysts say the factors underlying the faulty elections in 2014 -- systemic corruption, widespread insecurity, and a problematic electoral system -- have yet to be addressed, suggesting any new elections could simply mean repeating the same mistakes. Reforms have been delayed due to bickering between Ghani and Abdullah’s rival camps, they say.

Despite growing insecurity, woeful economic conditions, and political infighting, Khan said “Afghanistan cannot live in the dark forever” and hoped the country can stand up on its own feet soon.

Afghanistan's economy is heavily dependent on international aid, its security apparatus has yet to prove they are a force capable of defending the country without the support of NATO, and its weak, deeply divided government is engulfed in a long-running political crisis.

“When the Soviet Union invaded, nobody thought we could overcome such a brutal force,” he said. “But we did, with God’s help. Who would have thought that Eastern Europe would be free of the Russians? But they got their freedom after 70 years. We also have hope that we can overcome our problems.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.