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Sunday, 10 February, 2002, 10:25 GMT
Iran's influence shows in Herat
Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan is now the governor of Herat
Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, was recently accused by President Bush of being an "axis of evil". His speech has resonance in the Afghan province of Herat, which borders Iran and has a significant Iranian influence.

The BBC's David Loyn recently went to meet Herat's governor, Ismail Khan.

"That's government house," said my Afghan host as we splashed through medieval mud in Bad Ghis, one of the poorest provinces in western Afghanistan.

"Who's the governor now?" I asked. And he gave me his name and said approvingly, as if it was a qualification, that he's a good mujaheed.

To get power, that's what counts now in Afghanistan - what you did in the war. Never mind the support of the Americans. In the mind of many Afghans, the defeat of the Russians, and then the Taleban, was the work of the mujahideen, so they inherit the spoils.

Nearly all of the key figures in power around the country were good mujahideen, and many have pretty shady pasts which the Americans are not looking too closely at in backing them.

Herat's history

The Americans have reserved special treatment, though, for Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat.

A thousand years ago, Herat was the capital city of a huge empire which spread to east and west across Asia.

Herat market
Herat has a long and exotic history
The city is full of its exotic past. There are a group of minarets, towering over on one side like factory chimneys, and a large mosque covered with ornate blue tiles.

These tiles were carved at the time of Timur, the Asian emperor who fought for control with Genghis Khan beneath the walls of the fortress which dominates the town.

Herat still has an important position - it sits across the main supply route from Iran and that is Ismail Khan's problem.

Iran was included in President Bush's curious description of his enemies last week as being part of the "axis of evil", and for America Ismail Khan is far too close to Iran.

Centralised authority

He wins no credit with the Americans for cracking down on the drugs trade or ensuring significantly better law and order here than in the other main cities in post-war Afghanistan.

The curfew here, for example, starts two hours later than in Mazar or Kabul. Despite the loud cries and the rifle pointed straight at the driver if you're found out after curfew time, it's not too hard to get through the roadblocks.

Herat feels stable but there's been a price to pay for that liberty. There is another side to this old mujaheed - all power is centralised and nothing happens without his express authority.

I sat watching Ismail Khan work late one night in the huge hall where people come to petition him. Outside in an even bigger dark cavern, with wooden pillars carved as if by Tolkien himself, dozens of people sat hopelessly in the gloom waiting for decisions.

Iran's influence in western Afghanistan is obvious but much of it benign

Inside, Ismail Khan, a surprisingly short man with a long white beard who always wears the same white anorak, dealt with individual cases.

The ones that got to his desk tended to be former mujahideen. Was this one in the right job? How to get a pension for that man now he can't work because of his wounds?

Opposition opinions

This is the main problem with his administration, according to a dissident opposition meeting, for now in the shadows.

I sat in several meetings with Herat's surviving middle class, the ones that did not run to the West, as they complained about the mujahideen taking the key jobs - a police chief who had been just a potato seller before, or a man with no experience put in charge of a hospital because he was a former mujaheed.

They grumbled a bit about Iran, but not much. Most had spent time there. Iran's influence in western Afghanistan is obvious but much of it benign.

President Bush
Iran was one of three countries names by Mr Bush as "axes of evil"
Iran is wealthier for now and shares a long common border. Good relations would seem to be essential.

We filmed interviews with the new opposition although none was prepared to show his face. They had all had enough of persecution so we filmed them in silhouette or just showing hands or feet.

The last time I used a TV interview in silhouette was with a woman in Kabul when the Taleban took over in 1996. But the defeat of the Taleban has not yet brought freedom to Afghanistan.

Ismail Khan is not quite sure how to handle the Western journalists who dribble in and out of Herat every week.

They all want to meet him so he tends to wait until there are about a dozen lining up and then holds a press conference, always at 9.30pm - just before the curfew - which makes for an interesting drive home.

I've been to a few of these during my time in Herat this year, and most of the questions are the same and they're all from an American agenda.

Is Ismail Khan too close to Iran? Who supplies his special forces with Iranian-made guns? Is he planning to split Herat away from the central government?

But then the other night he said something quite new and illuminating. He described himself as a revolutionary and revolutionaries do not make good democrats.

See also:

27 Jan 02 | South Asia
Herat commander denies Iran arms claims
12 Nov 01 | South Asia
Herat, the 'pearl' of Afghanistan
01 Nov 01 | South Asia
Profile: Afghan leader Ismail Khan
26 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran backs Afghan peace
11 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran hits back at Bush
10 Jan 02 | Americas
Bush warns Iran on terror
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