Heratis Mourn Rebel Commander

But government says Herat now safer after death of Ghulam Yahya Akbari in fight with Afghan and foreign troops.

Heratis Mourn Rebel Commander

But government says Herat now safer after death of Ghulam Yahya Akbari in fight with Afghan and foreign troops.

Tuesday, 13 October, 2009
Over 5,000 men and women accompanied the body, while more women stood on their balconies and rooftops and wept.

It could have been a hero’s funeral; instead, the man being buried was a rebel, labelled a dangerous insurgent by the government and foreign forces alike.

Ghulam Yahya Akbari was killed on October 8 in a firefight with foreign and Afghan troops in the hills surrounding Siyawooshan, where he had made his base. His son confirmed his death. Along with him died 22 of his men – about ten per cent of his entire fighting force.

It was not an easy battle.

“At first the opposition tried to resist, but we overcame them,” said General Jalandar Shah Behnam, commander of the 207th Zafar corps of the Afghan army.

Yahya was laid to rest in Paichenar, next to a mosque he had built to celebrate the victory of the mujahedin over the former communist government. That, said onlookers, had been his wish.

Now all that remains is his complicated legacy: was he a hero, a villain, or a bit of both?

Yahya was one of the most colourful and controversial figures in western Afghanistan. He was part of the mujahedin battling the Soviets in the 1980s, fighting alongside the powerful warlord Ismail Khan. When Ismail Khan took over in Herat following the collapse of the communist regime in the early 1990s, he made Yahya the mayor of Herat city, a posting that ended abruptly when the Taleban reached the capital of western Afghanistan in 1995.

Yahya fled to Iran for a number of years, but soon returned to fight against the Taleban. In 2001, again under Ismail Khan, he became the head of the department of public works, but when his patron was called to Kabul in 2004 to become minister of energy, Yahya’s fortunes began to fade.

He did not get on well with the new governor, Sayed Hussain Anwari who sacked him in 2006. At this point, the former public servant became an outlaw, and took up arms against the government of which he had recently been a part. He was not placated by the departure of Anwari in early 2009; by then he had become infamous throughout his native district of Gozara, where he established an administration based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law, albeit with music and television.

Over the past three years, he staged a series of kidnappings, frequently lobbed rockets at Herat airport, and occasionally at the nearby United Nations base. He took responsibility for a bombing in August that killed 12 civilians, but he also claimed that he had shot down a helicopter in January, killing 13 Afghan army officers, when the Kabul authorities said that the aircraft crashed into a mountain in heavy fog.

He has been linked to the Taleban, to Hezb-e-Islami, even to al-Qaeda – although he always insisted that he was operating on his own.

Foreign forces tried repeatedly to kill him, but the wily commander proved elusive. In February, the United States-led coalition announced that Yahya had been killed along with 14 of his men; within minutes Yahya was on the phone, saying that he was fine but a nearby encampment of nomadic Kuchis had been wiped out.

This summer, radio stations in Herat were broadcasting announcements that US forces and the Afghan government were offering five million afghani (100,000 US dollars) for information leading to Yahya’s death or capture. Both the foreign military and the Afghan government denied placing the ad, but it ran for weeks nevertheless.

Now that he is dead, almost everyone, even the governor of Herat, has expressed regret.

“I put a lot of effort into bringing [Yahya] into the government,” said Ahmad Yusuf Nooristani, who replaced Anwari as governor in early 2009. “I said, ‘Think of your family. We won’t bother you. Just stop fighting.’ But he would not agree.”

Finally, said Nooristani, his patience ran out. He said that he was under pressure from the people of Herat to deal with the threat posed by Yahya’s rogue operations.

“Security will improve now,” he said.

Brigadier General Rosario Castellano, regional commander for the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in western Afghanistan, agreed.

“[Yahya] was a big danger to Herat and to the region,” he said.

But Yahya had his supporters, among them presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who praised the commander as “an honest mujahed” during a campaign stop in Herat this July.

“He did many good things for the people of Herat when he was mayor,” said Abdul Latif, 65. “He hated corrupt people; he would nail their ears to a board and make them stand in the street.”

Amrullah, a young man, could not speak of Yahya without tears.

“Ghulam Yahya was against these murdering foreigners who have occupied our country,” he said bitterly. “They said they would bring prosperity, but they just set Afghans fighting against each other.”

That certainly seemed to be the case in Chashma Khawani, 22 kilometres south of Siyawooshan, where Yahya made his last stand on Thursday, October 8. Afghan army troops were among the forces that approached the area in two helicopter gunships.

Yahya’s 16-year-old son, Mohammad Akbar, was with his father during the attack.

“I carried him on my shoulders and hid him, so the foreigners would not get his body,” said the young man.

A Kuchi woman in the area wrapped Yahya in an old canvas and placed him under her own tent, said an eyewitness, who said the woman also told the foreign troops that Mohammad Akbar was her son.

“The foreigners wanted to take Akbar with them,” said the witness, who did not want to give his name. “But this Kuchi woman said ‘Where are you taking my son?’ Then they left.”

With Yahya’s death, foreign troops and Afghan forces have set up checkpoints in Siyawooshan, an area that had been off-limits to the Kabul government for over two years. They have been searching cars and even motorcycles. An Afghan army soldier said that they had seized two explosive vests in just one day.

The people of Siyawooshan are going about their lives; shops are open, people are working. But the sadness and anger are apparent on many faces.

“Killing Ghulam Yahya will not make the situation in Herat any better,” said Amanullah, 80. “Many jihadi commanders have been killed, but things just keep getting worse.”

Yahya left a large family; he had 12 sons, one of whom, Zekirya, was killed just two months ago in a raid by foreign forces. He was 25.

With Yahya’s death, his men held an emergency meeting to select a new commander. A deputy, Samiullah Salah Shor, will now try to fill Yahya’s shoes.

“We will try until our last breath to carry out the wishes of Ghulam Yahya,” said one of his men, who would not give his name. “That is to expel the foreign forces from Afghanistan.”

Mustafa Saber is an IWPR trainee in Herat.
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