In Need? Call the Warlord


The emir of the west, his excellency the lord and high ruler of five provinces, Gov. Ismail Khan, was seated on a plush love seat, his stubby fingers clicking a set of red prayer beads. He was about to answer a question he considered impertinent. His dark eyebrows shot up, and his wild silver beard began to twitch.

“We don’t need any military trainers,” he said, responding to a suggestion that U.S. Special Forces troops are training his soldiers. “We know quite well how to fight.”

For the last quarter of a century, Khan has been leading men into battle--against the Soviets, against fellow commanders, against the Taliban. He is a man of many titles: emir, general, governor, commander. But more than anything else, Ismail Khan is a warlord.


In a nation where warlords write the rules, Khan is a king among kings. No rival threatens his primacy in a swath of western Afghanistan roughly the size of Utah. With thousands of men under arms and an armada of tanks and cannons, he is one of the country’s most powerful men. Every civil servant and functionary in five provinces answers to him.

Khan was the first warlord to receive a personal visit from interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. The British general who heads the international peacekeeping force in the capital, Kabul, traveled to Herat for an audience with him. So did a delegation of former Taliban leaders who begged for the release of 600 men imprisoned by the warlord, who himself was jailed by the Taliban for three years.

Afghanistan’s struggling interim government cannot survive without accommodating Khan and a handful of other dominant warlords. Khan has promised to cooperate with Karzai’s government, but he is an ethnic Tajik and Karzai is a Pushtun. Another Pushtun, former Afghan king Mohammad Zaher Shah, will have to contend with tribal leaders like Khan when he returns to Afghanistan after 29 years in exile.

Fighting among warlords allowed the Taliban to take power in 1996. But now, after battling to defeat the Islamic extremists, warlords and their followers feel entitled to retain their positions of power.

In the east, Hazrat Ali, Haji Abdul Qadir and Haji Mohammed Zaman are jockeying for power in the Jalalabad area and have national ambitions. Other potential threats to Karzai’s government include Gul Agha Shirzai of Kandahar and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Among Afghan warlords, Khan is unique. Unlike his competitors, he has a firm grip on his territory and seems uninterested in ruling the entire country. Unlike Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who changes allegiances as often as he changes socks, Khan is steadfast and loyal to what he considers the interests of western Afghanistan and, of course, himself. And unlike some less powerful warlords who lack a steady source of income, Khan has few cash flow problems.


Every day, long convoys of trucks heaped with consumer goods and foodstuffs lumber 60 miles across a rutted dirt track from the Iranian border to Herat, a provincial capital of about 150,000 people located along the old Silk Road that linked China and Rome.

Just west of town, the trucks stop at a dusty outpost marked by a worn rope stretched across the road. There, every trucker and every driver of a used car bound for resale in Herat pays customs.

The money does not go to the central government. It goes to Ismail Khan. His photograph, not Karzai’s, graces government buildings in these parts.

“In Kabul, the government cannot even pay the people’s salaries. The central bank doesn’t function,” Khan said. “Here, we pay the people. Here, we have regularity. Here, we have discipline.”

Khan is, by all means, a man of discipline. He rises well before dawn, his functionaries say, and is at his desk at Herat’s provincial office complex by sunrise. There, he attends to his warlord duties. Basically, he goes to meetings. They stretch on all day, through dinner and into the early morning.

Dark, unheated government offices are filled with men in turbans, pacing and drinking tea. They are waiting to see their emir. There are officials and businessmen from the five provinces ruled by Khan. There are dignitaries from Kabul, local military commanders, policemen and merchants. They all need Khan’s permission or blessing.


The Go-To Guy for Personal Crises

Khan may be a warlord, but he also is the governor of Herat province and the top civil official for four other provinces.

He doesn’t carry a weapon, but he does carry a day planner stuffed with notes and official documents. He’s in charge of finances, the civil service, roads, schools, social welfare, taxes and every other untended responsibility.

He’s also the go-to guy for personal crises.

Outside, pressing against metal gates guarded by Khan’s gunmen, hundreds of ragged men and women await an audience. A toothless man named Noor Ahman, 70, wants Khan to restore the watchman’s job taken from him by the Taliban. Gula Bakht, 35, her face cloaked by a blue burka, wants money to feed her eight children. Kalisa Azam, 34, also covered by a burka, wants restitution for the death of her husband, killed fighting the Taliban, and for her 10-year-old daughter, Fahima, who lost a leg to a land mine.

The supplicants say they have been waiting for up to six days. Few, if any, will actually speak to Khan. Some will pour out their stories to a functionary. A few will receive money, food or a letter instructing one of Khan’s ministries to provide assistance. Hundreds more will follow them to the gates the next day.

“Oh, yes, his excellency the emir is a very busy man. He sleeps just three hours a night, maximum,” said Nasir Yousofi, who carries the title director of hospitality in Khan’s Foreign Ministry. Yousofi insists that visitors address Khan as “your excellency emir,” or “your highness.”

No man can be a warlord without a healthy ego. But Afghan politicians say the level of corruption and thuggery that characterizes Khan’s rule is tolerable, in contrast to the blatant profiteering, extortion and drug-running that fuel the enterprises of most warlords.


“Some people say I don’t work for the best interests of the people of Herat,” Khan told a visiting delegation one afternoon. “Compare me with other commanders”--Khan doesn’t use the term warlord. “Do I have an expensive car?”

“No!” shouted his gunmen and supporters in the audience. (Actually, Khan is driven around town in a new silver four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows--technically the property of the Herat government, Yousofi explained.)

“Expensive computers?” Khan asked the crowd.


“Do I own a single acre of property?”


“These other commanders,” Khan said, “they seem to own half of Afghanistan.”

There is one more thing that distinguishes Khan: He can play the Iran card.

In January, the Bush administration portrayed Khan as a central figure in an Iranian scheme to undermine the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and extend Iran’s influence in western Afghanistan. The Americans accused Khan of accepting money, weapons and military training from Iran.

Khan denies the accusations but asserts that he has strong “brotherly” relations with Iran. He mentions the long common border, the two nations’ long-standing economic ties and the Persian tongue that some Afghans share with Iranians. There is also the fact, uncomfortable from the American viewpoint, that Iran provided Khan with refuge after the Taliban drove him from Herat in 1995.

“We get no help from any country, not even from our own government in Kabul,” Khan said, speaking the Persian dialect Dari. “So the Americans should not worry so much about Iran.”

U.S. complaints about Iran have obscured Khan’s little secret: He has good relations with the Americans too.


Like other warlords aligned with the Northern Alliance, Khan received U.S. cash, weapons and air support during the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And according to his security guards, the Americans are providing rudimentary military training to some of Khan’s soldiers--despite Khan’s insistence that American money and training ended after he retook Herat from the Taliban in November.

Khan’s security officers say his relations with the Americans are so good that he is permitting Special Forces soldiers to live in a hilltop fortress he built for himself when he was Herat’s governor from 1992 to 1995.

When American soldiers began setting up humanitarian projects at schools and hospitals and in rural areas around Herat recently, Khan assigned them armed bodyguards.

“We wanted to make sure we had his permission,” said Curt, a U.S. Army captain whose surname cannot be published under military guidelines. “He was very friendly, very helpful. He keeps telling us to let him know right away if we don’t get full cooperation from his ministers.”

A Reputation for Ferocity and Liberalism

Khan, 55, has the crisp, rigid bearing of an army officer. He is a squat, powerfully built man with a large square head and majestic beard.

He normally appears in public wearing an imposing black-and-white turban, a spotless white tunic and a tan field jacket.


He can be imperious. He showed up late for Karzai’s inauguration in Kabul in December, making a grand entrance and forcing Karzai to acknowledge him. Khan also has a reputation as a fierce and cunning military commander.

But Herat is Afghanistan’s artistic and cultural center, and by the brutal standards of Afghan warlords, Khan is something of a liberal.

Most warlords have several wives; Khan has just one. He has shocked Afghans by suggesting that a woman could effectively run the country.

One of Khan’s first acts after driving out the Taliban was to reopen Herat’s girls schools and readmit women to the university. He also lifted the Taliban edict requiring women to wear burkas, though virtually all Herat women continue to wear the head-to-toe garments in public.

“The emir, he has done wonderful things for women. He believes in women’s rights,” said Aziza Saai, the principal of Mehri Herawee High School for girls, where Khan personally escorted girls to class on opening day Jan. 9. His photo now hangs over the school’s entrance.

Western aid officials, who were harassed and robbed by the Taliban in Herat, say Khan declared that the region could not rebuild without increased Western relief aid.


“He’s a very reasonable man,” said the director of one relief agency. “He has staff people dedicated to relief operations. They actually wear ties and speak English--and they listen to you.”

Amir Usman, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan in the early 1990s, described Khan as “very people-friendly, a trait you don’t see in other commanders. He behaves very much like a common man.”

Not everyone in Herat speaks highly of Khan. Pushtuns, the single largest ethnic group in Afghanistan but outnumbered here by ethnic Tajiks like Khan, say his gunmen have robbed, raped and killed Pushtuns in retaliation for atrocities committed by the Pushtun-dominated Taliban.

Ghulam Sakhi, 50, a Pushtun from Herat province, said Khan’s soldiers kidnapped two of his cousins from a checkpoint in January. He carried a letter of complaint he wanted to deliver to Khan.

Janagha, 25, a Pushtun from a neighboring province who goes by one name, said his brother was kidnapped and killed by Khan’s men after he went to complain about beatings they had inflicted on his relatives.

“If you are Pushtun, it’s like they have a license to kill you,” Janagha said. “We were happier during the Taliban time. Now, under this man Khan, it’s the time of the warlords again. No one is safe.”


Other Pushtuns complained that Khan’s men punched and pistol-whipped supporters of the exiled king during a rally in Herat.

A Pushtun delegation of former Talibs braved the dangerous road from Kandahar to Herat to seek an audience with Khan. They carried a thick file of complaints accusing Khan’s soldiers of murder, rape and kidnapping of Pushtuns. They also demanded that the warlord release 600 accused Talibs imprisoned without access to lawyers or families.

Mohammed Wakil Achakzai, a tall, bearded Pushtun who led the delegation, said he did not fault Khan personally.

“Emir Khan is a good man,” he said. “He is very strong. But unfortunately, he does not control his men.”

Pushtuns Wait Two Days for Meeting

Khan made the Pushtuns wait for two days before agreeing to meet with them. Then, on the day of the meeting, he made them wait an hour and watch from afar as he grandly reviewed his troops and tanks.

When Khan finally addressed the Pushtuns, he rubbed his eyes and arched his back.

“I worked until 3 o’clock this morning,” he told them. “Then I slept three hours and prayed and went back to work. Now I have a terrible pain in my side, and my doctor says I should stay in bed for three days. But instead I came here, because I want to solve our country’s problems.”


The Pushtuns seemed unmoved. They began shouting and waving their complaints in Khan’s face. The emir eyed them coldly and ordered them to sit down and keep quiet. He produced his own folder of complaints from Tajiks abused by the Taliban and read them aloud. He mocked the visitors, asking them why so many Pushtuns who lived in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar were now claiming they were never Talibs themselves.

He reminded them that he had been imprisoned in Kandahar by the Taliban for three years. He told them of digging a hole beneath his toilet in a futile escape attempt. He described how his family had been swindled out of $100,000 it raised to gain his release by selling its possessions.

The Pushtuns fell silent. They knew the prison tale was a prelude to Khan’s decision on their own 600 imprisoned sons and brothers. And moments later, Khan announced that any prisoner who had fought for the Taliban would not be released.

“They have sold out their country,” Khan said. “So stop asking me about these Taliban.”

Khan seems haunted by his prison ordeal. He said he was betrayed by a fellow Northern Alliance commander who was paid by the Taliban to lure him to a 1997 breakfast meeting, where he was captured.

Khan’s escape from a Kandahar prison in 2000 is legendary. After paying the $100,000 bribe and an additional $20,000 that also failed to secure his freedom, Khan said, he was befriended by a Taliban prison guard named Hekmatullah who had served under Khan against the Soviets.

Hekmatullah offered to help him escape if Khan would arrange to have the guard’s family taken to safety in Iran. Khan agreed. According to accounts provided by relatives of soldiers jailed with Khan, Hekmatullah gave Khan a set of keys and then distracted the other guards. Hekmatullah followed Khan out of the prison, where Khan’s supporters waited in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. They escaped Taliban pursuers in helicopters and cars but hit a land mine as they sped toward the Iranian border. Khan suffered shrapnel wounds to his feet, and Hekmatullah was wounded in the leg.


After recovering in a remote village, according to the accounts, Khan and the guard were driven to western mountains controlled by Khan’s soldiers and from there to Iran, where he began raising an army.

Trained at an Afghan military academy, Khan has been a military officer his entire adult life. He rose to prominence in March 1979 when, as a captain in the Afghan army, he refused orders from the Soviet puppet government to open fire on an anti-Communist mob in the Herat bazaar. He then led an uprising in which scores of Soviet advisors and their families were massacred and their corpses mutilated. In retaliation, Soviet aircraft bombed and strafed the city, killing thousands of civilians, according to press accounts.

For nearly a decade, Khan led anti-Soviet guerrilla forces in western Afghanistan. Afterward, he served as governor of Herat province until his forces were routed by the Taliban in 1995.

Late last year, supplied with cash and weapons by Iran and the U.S., Khan’s army headed back toward Herat. But a day before he reached the city, the Taliban fled, driven out by American warplanes and a mutiny by a well-armed citizenry.

Khan was quickly chosen governor by a council of elders, according to Sultan Hamidi, 57, who has run an antique shop in Herat for the last 35 years.

“Before the emir returned, everybody hated their lives,” Hamidi said. “Time was stopped. Now we are free. So, tell me, who else could we have chosen?”


Khan now rules one of Afghanistan’s most stable and prosperous regions. Herat’s bazaar is loaded with electronics, clothing and prepared foods from Iran. Fruit, nuts, meat and vegetables are plentiful. The city’s spectacular main mosque is pristine, untouched by war. Even Herat’s traffic lights work.

Khan’s soldiers and police are everywhere. There is a 10 p.m. curfew; motorists driving after the deadline are confronted by soldiers who point AK-47s at their foreheads until they come up with the nightly password. Those who fail the test are hauled away for questioning.

Many residents seem to welcome the renewed sense of order.

“Emir Khan has made Herat a livable place again,” said Abdul Salam Sadaat, a police officer and childhood friend of Khan. “As soon as he came back, land mines were cleared and roads were opened and buildings were repaired.”

The emir insists that he will cooperate with the Kabul interim government, which includes his son, Sadeq Mir Wais, 28, a Cabinet minister.

Khan says he agrees on the need for a national army, though he has not offered to relinquish control of his private force. And he says he welcomes an expansion of the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul to “regions where there is no security.” Clearly, he does not consider Herat among them.

Subordinates Point to Their Remuneration

Recently, Gul Agha Shirzai, the U.S.-backed warlord in Kandahar, threatened to send 20,000 soldiers to Herat to attack Khan’s army and put an end to his alleged complicity with Iran. At the mention of Shirzai’s name, Khan grunted and then laughed.


“I am not worried about Gul Agha,” he said. The assault never materialized.

The emir’s western provinces are secured by men such as Noor Mohammed and Abdul Halim, who say they hid in the mountains during the Taliban era, mounting guerrilla attacks. Even then, they say, with their emir in jail or in exile, he still managed to pay them.

“The emir, he cares about his fighters,” said Halim, a bony, white-bearded man toting a heavy machine gun not far from Khan’s customs post. He and Mohammed were posted outside one of Khan’s military garrisons, where a sign reads: “Real security comes from the heart of the people.”

The two men said they had no interest in serving in a national army, for they had heard the Kabul government doesn’t pay its people.

“We would fight for our emir even if he didn’t pay us,” Mohammed said.

Halim nodded.

“But you know,” he said, “we fight even better when we are paid.”