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Tuesday, 9 July, 2002, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
Divided loyalties for 'Emir of Herat'
The legendary warlord Ismail Khan has returned to Herat after several years of Taleban rule to govern again.
New recruits are in training for Ismail Khan's new army
The BBC's Jonathan Head

We had driven just a few kilometres outside the city of Herat, when lines of people appeared along the road.

It was a scene of harsh beauty, the mud-brick houses bleached almost white by the searing sun, and flashes of green from the walled orchards of fruit trees.

The legendary Mujahedin commander benefits from Iranian support
Ismael Khan : fiercely independent
The people were holding photographs. Some showed the haunted faces of martyrs from the jihad, the struggle against the Russians in the 1980s.

The others were of a kindly-looking man with a snowy beard, and piercing black eyes, in a black and white turban.

There's a crush of excitement as he arrives in his motorcade... people struggle to touch his sleeve... a man cuts a cow's throat in his honour... young girls in headscarves sing chants of welcome for the man they call the Emir.

Personality cult

Ismail Khan made his reputation as a commander in the mujaheddin, then as governor in the 1990s.

He was jailed by the Taleban in 1997, but managed to escape. Last year, as the Taleban crumbled under the US bombing campaign, he returned, and was acclaimed governor once again in Herat's great mosque.

The Amir takes his horses out onto the plains surrounding Herat once a week
A show of strength during the Emir's weekly ride
Now he is building a personality cult around himself. His face appears on posters all over Herat.

His personal army maintains security on the streets, and organises elaborate demonstrations of support, like the one we witnessed.

He is funding a range of reconstruction projects, from road-building to public gardens.

The central government has little relevance here - this is the personal fiefdom of Ismail Khan.


We were summoned for an audience with Ismail Khan at midnight, in the old governor's palace in Herat.

We should be moving towards more openness and democracy and that never comes from the top

Rafeq Shahir
Rows of men sat in the gilded hall, waiting to ask favours. In a small side-room, a group of women in blue burkhas were in an agitated discussion with the Emir.

Two of them had uncovered their faces, and were asking the Emir to resolve a dispute over custody of their brother's children.

He listened patiently, then ordered his assistants to deal with the problem. Like other parts of Afghanistan, there is no legal system in Herat, no proper police force.

For justice, they turn to Ismail Khan.

The veteran commanders henchman organise rallies of public support
The Emir's henchmen organise rallies for him
A pious Muslim, Ismail Khan fasts during the day, and works at his desk into the small hours of the morning.

His assistants rush to and fro with documents for him to sign. We sit in a semi-circle in front of him, as he answers a few questions.

His answers are carefully prepared and non-committal. He seems to know his reputation in Kabul, as a fiercely independent warlord.

Would he permit political opposition? Only if the central government introduce a new constitution that allows it, he answers, ignoring the existence of a 1960s era constitution in Afghanistan.

Would he hand over the customs duties he takes from trucks coming in from Iran, to Kabul?

They are estimated at around $20m a month, double the central government's revenue. Only after meeting the needs of the people of Herat, he says.

Policies challenged

Not everyone in Herat accepts Ismail Khan's right to rule. The first voices of dissent rattle off an antiquated printing press in a secret location in the city.

Up to 20 million dollars a month from custom duties goes to the Emir
Millions in revenue comes from trucking taxes
This is the newsletter of the Council of Professionals, a collection of around 900 members from all professions, from doctors to poets, which challenges the way Ismail Khan and his loyalists are running the province.

It is chaired by a lawyer, Rafeq Shahir. "We should be moving towards more openness and democracy", he says, "and that never comes from the top."

Rafeq has paid a price for his defiance. In May he was detained briefly, and beaten, by Ismail Khan's men.

But opposition to the Emir is limited. Herat enjoys greater prosperity and security than most other parts of the country.

After 23 years of incessant fighting, most people in the city are grateful for what they have now. Ismail Khan is regarded as better than other warlords.

He has an army of around 15,000, and plenty of weapons, and he faces no challenge to his control of the province from other warlords.

In the future, the lack of democracy and accountability in his administration may become a problem - but for most of Herat's people, that is not the main priority at the moment.


Political uncertainty






See also:

09 Jul 02 | South Asia
08 Jul 02 | South Asia
10 Feb 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
01 Nov 01 | South Asia
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