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Ismail Khan
Emir of Herat

Ismail Khan is the hero of Herat, the ancient and important city of Western Afghanistan. In 1979, Herati mobs lynched Soviet advisors and their families, over 300 people in all. Ismail Khan, then a young Afghan army captain, broke open the armory and distributed weapons to the population. Angry, Brezhnev had the city bombed, killing 20,000 Heratis, and driving Khan and the rebels out of the city to the hills. Khan fought the Soviets for 13 years until the city finally fell into his hands in 1992, and became the capitol of his mini-kingdom.

Ismail Khan was not a gifted commander or administrator like Masud or Dostum. He chose to build a conscript army instead of a tribal militia, which would have been more suited to the fighting traditions of Afghanistan. What Khan did seem to have was a talent for public relations. He presented himself as a holy warrior and traditional emir. He sat splendidly dressed, received poor supplicant peasants, resolved disputes with Oriental wisdom, and granted the wishes of the lowborn.

In 1995, Mullah Omar attacked Herat. Khan’s conscript army performed poorly, and Omar captured Khan in a merry-go-round of battle, bribery, and treachery. Commanders captured by the Taliban were routinely lynched, but Khan was a pious and famous jihadi so he was imprisoned instead. His guards felt that even detaining such a man was a sinful act, so they helped him escape in 2000.

Masud brought him back to Afghanistan as part of the northern alliance, and Khan regained his Herati kingdom. For a while he was his old self, the Emir of Herat. He collected tariffs which he refused to send to Karzai, spending it on improvements in Herat instead. In fact he hardly acknowledged the US-backed government in Kabul any more than he had the Soviet-backed one years before. Then in 2004, he became the first of the great warlords to give up his kingdom. His huge conscript army proved no match for a smaller ethnic militia and was losing battles. In danger of public defeat, he accepted Karzai’s face-saving offer of a government job in Kabul, something he had previously refused. Karzai sent French-trained national army battalions to Herat to re-establish order. Because of his reputation as a pious jihadi, Khan will remain a player in Afghan politics as long as he lives. By ballot box or AK47, he may even be Emir of Herat again someday.


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