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Ismail Khan's Dismissal Sparks Violence in Herat

Powerful warlord accepts his removal, but rioters target the offices of the UN and other international agencies.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

In an apparent move to bolster his position ahead of the October leadership election, President Hamed Karzai last weekend removed Ismail Khan as military governor of the western province of Herat.


The September 11 decision sparked two days’ of violent clashes by Khan supporters that left as many as 7 dead and over 50 wounded, according to news reports.


Ismail Khan has long been considered a thorn in Karzai’s side.


“I have no doubt that the election is one of the reasons for the recent incidents in Herat,” said Mohammed Qasim Akhgar, a political analyst based in Kabul. “ As long as Ismail Khan was in power in Herat, Karzai had the least chance of obtaining votes [there].”


Karzai, who faces 17 challengers in next month’s presidential election, replaced Khan with Sayed Mohammad Khairkhuwa, a Herat native, a former mujahedin fighter and member of the same political faction as Khan - Jamiat-e-Islami.


Khan accepted Karzai’s move, but rejected the president’s offer to take up the post of minister of mines and industry.


Karzai had long been rumoured to be looking to replace Khan. When the latter’s forces clashed last month with the fighters of another local militia commander, Amanullah, the president sent Afghan National Army troops, backed by Coalition air and ground forces, to quell the fighting.


Four days of battle between the rival warlords ended August 17 when the United States brokered a cease-fire. This was seen as a victory for Karzai, who has long been criticised for failing to extend his control outside of Kabul.


On September 12, Khairkhuwa, who until the day before was ambassador to the Ukraine, was escorted by the Afghan National Army and Coalition forces to his new offices following his arrival at Herat airport on a flight from Kabul. He didn’t get a warm reception. The security forces had to stop the crowds from attacking his car.


Also on September 12, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with Coalition and Afghan troops, throwing stones, looting and burning the offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the World Health Organisation, the International Organisation for Migration, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. The protestors tried to block firefighters from extinguishing the blaze.


The Afghan National Army fired into the crowd to try and stop the demonstrators.


Eyewitnesses said the crowd could be heard shouting, "Down with Karzai, down with [US ambassador to Afghanistan Dr Zalmay] Khalilzad, down with the US and enemies of the Afghanistan nation!"


Another demonstration flared on the night of September 12 in front of Khan’s house after he refused the ministry position.


Khan then appeared on local television and urged citizens not to loot and destroy foreign and UN offices. "Replacement is a normal procedure in a government, so you should not be upset,” he said. However, he also said he was "upset that the national army fired on our Muslim brothers".


Ibrahim Malikzada, the governor of Ghor, was also sacked over the weekend. Malikzada, however, accepted a new position offered by Karzai as an advisor to the interior ministry.


UNAMA said instability had marred the province, where voter registration figures are among the lowest in the country.


Prior to the latest violence, Jean Arnault, head of UNAMA, hailed the appointments of new governors in the “troubled” Herat and neighbouring Ghor provinces.


Arnault said that the appointments “offer an opportunity to prevent further fighting; to reassure the population; and to ensure the peaceful preparation of the upcoming presidential election.


“The new governors should address with impartiality the root causes of the conflicts; promote a fair investigation into allegations of human rights abuses, in particular during the fighting in Shindand (in Herat province); and allow justice to be served.”


His statement, reported by the UN News Centre, went on to say that “the latest cycle of violence in Shindand and other districts in August showed clearly the potential for the conflict to spin out of control and jeopardise the stability of the entire region”.


Arnault said that the clashes were contained thanks only to the Afghan National Army. Off the record, some in the international community criticised Arnault for this statement, saying it may have led protesters to focus the violence on UN offices.


Karzai ordered an investigation into the weekend violence and expressed his support for the UN and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.


"Our people including the people of Herat have appreciation for what the UN is doing. This violence is not the work of [ordinary] people but of a law-breaking group of individuals who are against the people of Herat and against peace and security,” he said in a statement released to the press.


Arnault said on September 11 that “the United Nations stands ready to assist the administration and civil society in Herat and neighbouring provinces during this sensitive period”.


But the ransacking and burning of the UN compound the following day may make that promise difficult to fulfil. The UNHCR announced on September 14 that it was temporarily suspending operations there. UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told reporters that all international staff members and some national employees have been relocated from Herat to Kabul.


A Coalition spokesperson at a September 13 press conference said, “The security of Herat is a concern, as is the security of all provinces in the country. However, with the continued presence of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, assisted by the Coalition, this disturbance will not disrupt the transfer of governmental authority in Herat, upcoming free elections, or continued peace and stability in Afghanistan.”


Reaction was mixed to the news of Ismail Khan’s removal and the subsequent violence.


An editorial in the government newspaper ANIS on September 13, said that the people of Herat could not have been the ones responsible for the violence, because “Ismail Khan has always obeyed the orders of the central government.


“Those responsible for the conflict in Herat, who burned the offices of UN and the human rights commission offices and barracks of the police, were not the mujahedin and Muslim people of Herat, but were enemies of the people of Afghanistan.


“The people of Herat together with their hardworking governor Mohammed Ismail Khan tried their best to rebuild Herat and they have had extraordinary and obvious success in the last two and half years. They have fought against terrorism and were never willing to have an insecure Heart.”


Abdulzahid, a retired colonel living in Herat, said, "The demonstration is no use, in the end, Ismail Khan should have been dismissed.”


He added that he hopes the new governor can stabilise the security situation as well continue the reconstruction of Herat city.


Ali Ahmad, a shopkeeper who was forced to close his store, said, "No one can serve Herat as well as Ismail Khan did.”


Mohammed Qasim Akhgar, a political analyst, cautioned Karzai against misusing military power in the run-up to next month’s election and advised him to use democratic means to bring the country together.


“To weaken the power of the warlords, these kind of measures by the central government are welcome and appreciated, but the government should be careful of the ways in which they weaken them,” Akhgar said.


Hafizullah Gardesh is the IWPR local editor in Kabul. Ehsan Sarwariar and Khalida are freelance reporters based in Herat. Suhaila Muhseni, an IWPR staff reporter based in Kabul, also contributed to this report.


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