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Thursday, 1 November, 2001, 11:31 GMT
Profile: Afghan leader Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan's exact whereabouts are unknown
By BBC News Online's Marcus George

As veteran Afghan commanders return to the spotlight, one of the beleaguered country's most legendary figures has remained conspicuously absent.

The former governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, has been silent since his escape from a prison in Kandahar more than a year ago.


He can claim to represent a vanished golden age, as well as having an unblooded reputation

Michael Griffin
His forces recently claimed to have captured Chaghcharan, the capital of Afghanistan's Ghor province, and said they were pushing on towards Herat.

But it is not known if Ismail Khan is among them.

The former governor was mooted as a potential successor to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander, but holds little support in the north-eastern region of Afghanistan

Little information

Afghan affairs commentator Olivier Roy says little information has come from Ismail Khan's camp.

"I don't know the extent of the co-operation between him and the Northern Alliance at the moment but he's just waiting, and trying to make scores on the ground," he said.

Abdul Haq
Abdul Haq was seen by many as the best hope for a post-Taleban government

Michael Griffin, author of 'Reaping the whirlwind - the Taleban regime in Afghanistan' believes that Khan, who has a reasonably good human rights record, could figure in the country's future

"He can claim to represent a vanished golden age, as well as having an unblooded reputation," he said.

"But the problem is that he's Tajik," he added. "It is looking for Pashtuns like Abdul Haq which is the secret to the post-Taleban government quandary."

Amazing escape

Described by Afghanistan expert Ahmad Rashid as "shrewd, short and with an elfin smile", it was Khan's epic escape from his Taleban captors in March last year which brought him to prominence.


Nearly 18 months later there is little word of the man who was feted for liberating Herat from 12 years of communist rule

Few believed the stories about his escape until it was confirmed a week later. Speaking to the BBC, he said people dissatisfied with Taleban rule had helped him.

During the time that he was on the run his son denied he had escaped and said he had been "eliminated" by the Taleban. Meanwhile, the Taleban offered a large reward for his recapture.

But nearly 18 months later there is little word of the man who was feted for liberating Herat from 12 years of communist rule.

Khan was an officer in the national army and rose up against the Soviet forces stationed in Herat just months after their arrival in 1979. This initial fray resulted in the death of hundreds of Soviet soldiers.

Decade-long war

It was the start of his 10 year war against communism.

In the beginning, Khan's rule in the city was hailed as a success. Herat's schools were filled with more than 40,000 children, nearly 50% of which were girls.


But the establishment of a conscript army was not welcome in the traditionally liberal city.

Corrupt officials and reports of a lack of funds to pay his soldiers were weaknesses that counted against him when the Taleban launched their offensives towards Herat..

Taking the city of Herat, which sits near the borders of Iran and Turkmenistan was an asset too attractive for the Taleban to ignore.

The value of controlling the Pakistan-Turkmenistan highway has proven to be a big earner for the regime.

Little has changed

More 20 years after Khan's uprising little has changed.

If he is in Afghanistan, his attitude could be reminiscent of the first collective meeting of Mujaheddin commanders he is reputed to have organised inside the country in 1987.

During that meeting the field commanders demanded that they, rather than party leaders in Peshawar, dictate the political outcomes of their military efforts.

These commanders were indignant that Afghans bickering with each other over international support in Pakistan held sway over them.

If he is inside Afghanistan Ismail Khan is likely to be sceptical of any outside political interference.

But the legendary governor without successful military offensives against the Taleban may well be overlooked.

See also:

26 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan powerbrokers: Who's who
24 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghans discuss political future
22 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The world's plans for Afghans
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's Northern Alliance
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who are the Taleban?
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