Khan Tightens Grip on Herat

Warlord Ismail Khan looks to Tehran to help him consolidate his Herat powerbase.

Khan Tightens Grip on Herat

Warlord Ismail Khan looks to Tehran to help him consolidate his Herat powerbase.

When the warlord Ismail Khan re-entered the Western Afghan city of Herat last November he received an extremely warm welcome.

The inhabitants thought Khan, a former governor of Herat province, would restore a semblance of normality to the city after the years of Taleban repression.

Herat had always been known as a centre of cultural and religious tolerance, where Shia and Sunni Muslims had lived peacefully side by side for generations.

But, two months after the warlord's return, much of the strict Taleban rule of law remains in force. And, rather than embrace the unifying initiatives of Kabul and the international community, Khan seems to be wooing the Iranians who have been trucking in guns, money and men into province since November.

Khan now appears less interested in joining a yearned-for peace process and supporting the administration of Hamid Karzai than retaining control of his fiefdom through harsh discipline and foreign support.

Since the influence of foreigners - especially among the ranks of the Taleban - has been blamed for so much of the violence of the past years, an Iranian alliance is bound to be an inflammatory move.

Khan has denied enlisting the help of Tehran even though his own commanders admit to ferrying weapons from Iran into the country. Even the US appears to be aware of the traffic - its bombers wiping out one convoy of arms in a missile attack.

The Iranian pact, meanwhile, has provoked a band of 20,000 Afghan tribal fighters in the south of the country - opposed to Tehran's intervention in Afghan affairs - to threaten an attack on western Herat.

Inter-tribal and ethnic rivalries have been at the heart of so many of Afghanistan's troubles and this development, so early into the peace process, is a bad omen.

President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, told journalists last week that Iranian officials were actively trying to dissuade Khan from supporting Karzai's administration.

The warlord's conscription of Iranian help seems to have been propelled by his anger at being passed over for a senior ministerial post in the interim administration. Kahn may be turning to Tehran as a means of bullying Kabul into handing him a government job.

Khan had been a popular Herat governor before the city fell to the Taleban in 1995. After a while on the run, he spent three years in a student militia prison before escaping to join the Northern Alliance in 2000.

Soon after he arrived in Herat in November, however, hopes that Khan was about to re-introduce a new, liberal regime were dashed.

The generous welcome dissipated, as women were told to stay behind the veil and men ordered not to shave their beards.

One of the first appointments he made was that of a well-known intellectual to head the office for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice - the hated invention of the Taleban and one most expected to be dismantled.

Under the previous regime, the office tormented Afghans for sporting the wrong length of beard and dished out public floggings for minor infringements of their version of Sharia law.

That was only the beginning. A few days after the liberation of Herat, a pro-monarchist group attempted to hold a meeting in the Mofaque hotel in support of former king Zahir Shah, but were prevented from doing so by Kahn supporters.

They stormed off in protest to re-gather at the city's main mosque, where they were confronted and beaten by soldiers.

This came as a great shock to people who had heard Khan speak in support of pluralism. There are now fears that he intends only to work with former mujahedin supporters.

Some of them have already been given prominent positions in Herat administration, while intellectuals and professionals are scorned, holding down third-rate jobs or none at all.

The Taleban has gone but their culture and dogma remain.

It's unlikely that the people of Herat will take this all lying down for, as experience shows, they are apt to rise up against authoritarian rule with devastating results. As in 1979 when an anti-Soviet revolt claimed the lives of 24,000 people.

They also stood up against the Taleban on several occasions - notably three years ago when the city's women demanded the reopening of schools for girls and public bathing facilities.

The return of Iranian influence to the region and the growth of Khan's personal army could spark renewed conflict before peace has even begun to take hold.

Asif Maroof is a journalist at the BBC World Service's Persian Service

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