Spurred by lack of confidence in national security forces to keep the Taliban at bay after withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014
One of the most powerful mujahedeen commanders in Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, is calling on his followers to reorganise and defend the country against the Taliban as Western militaries withdraw, in a public demonstration of faltering confidence in the national government and the Western-built Afghan National Army.
Mr. Khan is one of the strongest of a group of warlords who defined the country’s recent history in battling the Soviets, the Taliban and one another, and who then were brought into President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet as a symbol of unity. Now, in announcing that he is remobilising his forces, Mr. Khan has rankled Afghan officials and stoked fears that other regional and factional leaders will follow suit and re-arm, weakening support for the government and increasing the likelihood of civil war.
This month, Mr. Khan rallied thousands of his supporters in the desert outside Herat, the cultured western provincial capital and the centre of his power base, urging them to coordinate and reactivate their networks. And he has begun enlisting new recruits and organising district command structures.
“We are responsible for maintaining security in our country and not letting Afghanistan be destroyed again,” Mr. Khan, the Minister of Energy and Water, said at a news conference over the weekend at his offices in Kabul. But after facing criticism, he took care not to frame his action as defying the government: “There are parts of the country where the government forces cannot operate, and in such areas the locals should step forward, take arms and defend the country.”
Mr. Karzai and his aides, however, were not greeting it as an altruistic gesture. Governor of Herat province called Mr. Khan’s reorganisation an illegal challenge to the national security forces. And Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, tersely criticised Mr. Khan.
“'The remarks by Ismail Mr. Khan do not reflect the policies of the Afghan government,” Mr. Faizi said. “The government of Afghanistan and the Afghan people do not want any irresponsible armed grouping outside the legitimate security forces structures.”
In Kabul, Mr. Khan’s provocative actions have played out in the news media and brought a fierce reaction from some members of Parliament, who said the warlords were preparing to take advantage of the U.S. troop withdrawal set for 2014.
“People like Ismail Mr. Khan smell blood,” Belqis Roshan, a senator from Farah province, said in an interview. “They think that as soon as foreign forces leave Afghanistan, once again they will get the chance to start a civil war, and achieve their ominous goals of getting rich and terminating their local rivals.”
Indeed, Mr. Khan's is not the only voice calling for a renewed alliance of the mujahedeen against the Taliban, and some of the others are just as familiar.
Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, an ethnic Tajik commander who is Mr. Karzai’s first Vice-President, said in a speech in September, “If the Afghan security forces are not able to wage this war, then call upon the mujahedeen.”
Another prominent mujahedeen fighter, Ahmad Zia Massoud, said in an interview at his home in Kabul that people were worried about what was going to happen after 2014, and he was telling his own followers to make preliminary preparations.
“They don’t want to be disgraced again,” Mr. Massoud said. “Everyone tries to have some sort of Plan B. Some people are on the verge of re-arming.”
He pointed out that it was significant that the going market price of Kalashnikov assault rifles had risen to about $1,000, driven up by demand from a price of $300 a decade ago.
“Every household wants to have an AK-47 at home,” he said.
One senior Western official in Kabul saw Mr. Khan’s actions as the start of a wave of political positioning before the 2014 transition and said it bore close watching. The allies want to avoid any replay of the civil war in the ‘90s that led hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee. A renewed civil war would undo much of what the West has tried to accomplish.
Mr. Khan is one of the towering figures of the resistance against the Soviets and the Taliban, and his power base in Herat province, along the border with Iran, has remained relatively thriving throughout the war, despite a recent rise in kidnappings and militant attacks.
After years of consolidating power in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was forced to flee Herat after the Taliban took the city. After the northern coalition and U.S.-led invasion drove out the Taliban in 2001, he was restored as Governor of Herat. But he was removed by Mr. Karzai in 2004, prompting violent demonstrations among his supporters.
He continues to exert strong influence in the western regions today, and he clashes regularly with the current Governor, Daud Shah Saba, Western officials say.
Following the public criticism that he was creating an armed opposition to the government, Mr. Khan insisted at his news conference in Kabul on Saturday that he was not re-arming his followers or opposing the security forces, but rather wanted the mujahedeen to work with the army and the police as a sort of reserve force, warning them, for example, if they saw signs of Taliban infiltration.
“This does not mean we are rebelling against the government,” he said. “We are struggling for 30 years to build this government, and we are not allowing this government to be toppled.”
Still, such an auxiliary role is exactly what was envisioned for the Afghan Local Police, organised and trained at great cost by U.S. Special Operations forces in recent years.
A former mujahedeen fighter, Saeed Ahmad Hussaini, a member of the provincial council in Herat, said that if the United States had not yet recognised its failure in Afghanistan, the Afghan people certainly had.
“We have rescued this nation twice from the hands of invaders and oppressors, and we will rescue it once more if needed,” he said. “People cannot tolerate the whippings and beatings of the Taliban.” — New York Times News Service