Democracy in Afghanistan: The Warlord of Herat

Kabul Government, Strongman Vie for Authority on Iranian Border

Warlord Ismail Khan

Warlord Ismail Khan was appointed governor of Afghanistan's far western province by the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. He is known for his generousity, and for his tight control of the region. Tom Bullock, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Bullock, NPR

Afghanistan is preparing for new national elections in September, and a major obstacle to pulling off the nation's first-ever democratic election are the nation's powerful warlords.

To fill the power vacuum after the fall of the Taliban, many former warloards were appointed governors of Afghanistan's provinces by the American-backed interim government. Now they rule their provinces as private fiefdoms.

NPR's Renee Montagne recently visited Herat, an ancient city in Western Afghanistan at the border with Iran, to profile one of the warlords whose cooperation — and willingness to give up some power — may hold the fate of a nation.

Herat is the most prosperous city in Afghanistan, and the man in charge is Ismail Khan. He's earned a reputation for being generous to the poor. But Khan can be generous, because he reportedly keeps all the tariff money from imports to Iran, a sum worth as much as a million dollars a day.

Khan can also be an intimidating force, for both civilians and officials of the interim government in Kabul. Political opponents have been jailed, and journalists are compelled to censor themselves.

The central government is beginning to flex its power in Khan's turf. After a bloody clash with a rival commander that left at least 16 dead — and some say perhaps 100 — Kabul sent 1,500 soldiers from the new national army to quell the violence. Those troops are still in Herat, and on some days they can be seen marching on opposite sides of the street from Khan's own militia.

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