- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

HERAT, Afghanistan Ismail Khan is everywhere in this city. His picture adorns the walls of government offices. It is on the desk of the manager of Afghan television and radio. Here's Mr. Khan visiting a girls school. There he is giving a speech to teachers.

He shares his views on every subject. He rails against his own people for not playing a large enough role in the reconstruction of their nation. He berates the United Nations for not doing enough to help his people. His motorized squad of soldiers toting machine guns in camouflage fatigues surrounds his luxury SUV swooping through this city of 500,000.

Mr. Khan controls the road between Herat and Eslam Qal'eh near the Iranian border on the ancient Silk Road eastward to Mashhad in Iran, Tehran and Baghdad and collects thousands of dollars in tolls per day, according to a high-level official here. That's a fortune in a country where the annual income averages a few hundred dollars.

But though Mr. Khan governor of Herat both before and after the Taliban rule may have presence and power, he has very little popular mandate among the people in the five provinces he rules, say residents, observers and officials. "He has too much power," said an observer and former comrade-in-arms. "He's got too much money. He's got too many soldiers. He doesn't need [provisional President Hamid] Karzai."

City people resent him because he's an Islamic fundamentalist in relatively liberal Herat. Rural folk resent him because they say he has done little to serve their needs.

Ethnic Pashtuns, who make up a significant portion of the population in the northern parts of his domain, despise him because he is not a Pashtun.

As Afghanistan prepares for its loya jirga a national conference in mid-June at which representatives will endorse Mr. Karzai or name a different two-year provisional government the country may find itself challenged by Mr. Khan, who seems to be building his own military fiefdom in western Afghanistan. That could spell trouble for the United States as it seeks to stabilize Afghanistan.

Mr. Khan was unavailable for an interview.

Mohammed Afzali, a top Foreign Ministry official, defended Mr. Khan's government, disputing widely reported accusations of human rights abuses against Pashtuns. "The people in Afghanistan always lived together in harmony," he said.

Mr. Khan, 56, is a former warlord who fought the Russians as a mujahideen and ruled Herat and its environs during the fractious four years between the fall of the Soviet-backed government of the late Gen. Najibullah and the country's takeover by the Taliban.

He spent the Taliban years locked up in Kandahar for two years, then left for Mashhad, a prosperous, verdant city in western Iran, a six-hour drive from here. He came back and re-installed himself as governor after the Taliban collapsed under U.S. bombing late last fall.

Though only his control of Herat province is widely recognized, he is also said to hold sway over four other provinces, extending his power to one-fifth of Afghanistan.

Accusations of human rights violations by Mr. Khan's estimated 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers abound. Here in Herat, his fighters are thick on the ground. Uniformed soldiers man checkpoints along rural roads, fill city streets, populate police stations, and guard the offices of the provisional government of Afghanistan.

Mr. Afzali said the country still faces many threats. "There are definitely security dangers in various parts of Afghanistan," he said. "To oppose the Taliban and al Qaeda, our armed forces have to be ready."

Still, many wonder whether those armed forces answer to Kabul or to Mr. Khan. A leading intellectual and former comrade-in-arms, who declined to provide his name, said most of Mr. Khan's forces are ethnic Panshiris, Uzbeks and Badakhis and don't reflect the country's other ethnic groups, of which Pashtuns are the largest.

Though many people here resent Mr. Khan, most won't speak openly against him. Even most officials of Western aid organizations declined to be quoted.

Still, some people speak fearlessly.

"Relative freedom is here," said Gholamnavi Taji, 31, owner of a video and cassette shop in the village of Obee, a three-hour drive along a dirt road west of Herat. "But no one is serving us. Nothing gets here. There's no government representative. The roads are terrible. Any goods that get here, independent merchants bring."

Yet, said villagers gathered around Mr. Taji's colorful shop, Mr. Khan's government is able to collect about one-fifth of the annual property taxes.

"There's 1,000 children who want to go to school this year, but no place for them to sit and no books for them to read," said Amidollah Hameri, 28. "There's a hospital but no doctors."

In Herat, the commercial center of Afghanistan, residents resent Mr. Khan's fundamentalism. They chafe at his attempts to restrict music, liquor and social life. On a recent Friday, a day off when families flock to the mountains for recreation, his troops separated the men from the women.

"We were trying to protect the women," said Seyed Ahmad Hosseini, deputy head of the newly revived Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, a Taliban-era morality agency. "This is our culture."

But the people here are more sophisticated than that, said the director of a relief organization that employs many Afghan workers. "Ismail Khan is a fundamentalist," he said. "The people here want individual liberties. They want education, health care and to be left alone."

But Mr. Khan also has his defenders.

One government official said prohibitions on music were merely suggestions and applied only to the holy month of Moharram, when Muslims mourn the passing of the Prophet Muhammad. "There was an announcement on government radio asking people not to play tapes loudly," he said. "Even if you don't cry or mourn, you shouldn't show joy either."

City people here look longingly at Kabul, which has come under American influence. Despite the local cultural ties with Iran, they resent Mr. Khan's political proximity to the Islamic Republic. His special forces use Iranian-made weapons and wear U.S.-made uniforms, leading some to conclude he is playing the United States and Iran against each other in a foreign-policy game that jeopardizes the goals of the fragile Karzai government in Kabul.

"Our relationship with foreign countries should emanate from the central government," said a former government official.

"We have no position on the conflict between Iran and the United States," said Mr. Afzali.

For ethnic Pashtuns, life has become especially hard under the thumb of the government and army of Mr. Khan. Many Tajiks continue to associate Pashtuns with the despised Taliban. But many Pashtuns say they've been here for generations and had nothing to do with the Taliban. Human Rights Watch has documented tales of torture, looting and rape against Pashtuns by soldiers affiliated with Mr. Khan's army.

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