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Ismail Khan, Former Warlord, on ISIS, Afghan Governance, and His Country’s Future

While Osama bin Laden is the most well known mujahedeen fighter, Ismail Khan played a more crucial role in the ousting of the Soviets from Afghanistan.

In his nearly 70 years, Ismail Khan has witnessed some of the most significant moments in Afghanistan’s history. From the Soviet occupation to the rise of the Taliban, Khan has been a key player during many of these moments. During the Soviet occupation he was a warlord, although he discounts the term, and when the Taliban rose to power, he successfully prevented the group from taking over Herat. Ultimately he fled to Iran, taking nearly 8,000 of his men with him.

Khan has also been a thorn in the side of the central government. Shortly after the Taliban was thrown out of power he was brought into the fold. When former President Hamid Karzai assumed the presidency he was given a cabinet position. And several years ago, Khan created a headache for the central government over his calls for many of his followers to organize in light of the fact that Western militaries were pulling out of Afghanistan.

Fahim Masoud recently sat down with Khan to discuss among other things, the tenuous security situation many Afghans face, how President Ashraf Ghani has governed and what threat if any the Taliban still pose.

When you were in power in Herat a few years ago, there was peace, order, high employment and many development projects were going on. Now it’s extremely unsafe. What do you think happened?

I think the reason for the huge problems existing in Herat is obvious not only to the people of Herat, but also to the world community. Even a kid, 15-16 years old, knows who is playing with his fate and what’s going on in his country. Too many people are leaving Herat. You heard in the meeting in the other room, how many people are leaving Herat on a daily basis. Anyone that has skills and money leaves this country. People have realized that a catastrophe is dominant in this land now. The people of Afghanistan thought that after the collapse of the Taliban regime, and with the coming of the world community, the world community would remain honest in their actions and help them build their country and bring order and prosperity to this land.

But this did not happen. This was a huge dream. A fantasy if you will. Time showed that the world community’s objectives were not to build a prosperous Afghanistan but to use Afghanistan as an instrument of their policy in order to serve their interests. Throughout history Afghanistan has served as a crossroads between East and West. Sometimes East has gone West via Afghanistan and sometimes West has gone East. We have always been victims of the grand designs of the East or West. This time, foreigners’ intentions for Afghanistan are not too different than their former designs. The only difference this time is that they have come under the name of democracy and peace to implement their designs. Unfortunately, because of foreigners’ grand imperial designs we are faced with a major catastrophe. From the beginning, from the very early days when foreigners came to Afghanistan, I told them that their vision for Afghanistan would not work.

Please allow me to illustrate what I mean. As soon as the Taliban were defeated, foreigners began disarming the Mujahedeen. How silly was that? What kind of rationale or logical explanation did they have for such a decision? Any person would know that this was a grand mistake, especially a military person.

The Taliban were not completely out of major provinces’ gates when they started the process of disarmament demobilization reintegration (DDR). The Taliban left major cities but they did not leave Afghanistan. They left Herat to go to Farah province. They left Kabul to go to Wardark province. This flight of the enemy forces from Afghanistan’s major provinces to the periphery happened all over Afghanistan, in Kunar province, in Jalalabad province, and in many other provinces throughout Afghanistan. Any savvy person, especially a military general, would know that in order to eradicate an enemy, you must follow him, locate him, and liquidate him so he cannot regroup, reorganize, and attack you. What amazes me about this design or military strategy was that there was no Afghan National Army at hand to defend the cities, maintain order, and pave the way for reconstruction. This was a grave mistake, one for which we’re still paying. I would not have been so upset with the plan of DDR if there were a professional army in place.

I cried wolf that the enemy would return especially now that our mujahedeen forces are disarmed and retired. But no one listened to me. What kind of guarantee was there that the Taliban would not return and plot far more vicious attacks on the military gains that were made? Four years passed by before the Afghan National Army fielded four thousand soldiers. Four thousand soldiers! How could such a small force defend the entire nation of Afghanistan from insurgent groups? In the early days of our victory, NATO generals told us that we needed a seventy-thousand-force armed with light arms in order to provide security for the major cities in Afghanistan. I almost laughed at such an idea because Afghanistan had been going through a major turmoil in the last 20 years. We have had decades of war. The scars of war are still too pronounced in our country. A seventy-thousand-force was not sufficient for the provision of security in major provinces. I thought we needed at least 250 to 300 thousand security forces to provide sufficient security and order. With the mujahedeen forces disarmed and with no major professional army at hand, how could we have security, development, and prosperity in this country? We now know that security and building a strong economy in this country was not the objective in this country. The foreigners’ objectives involved other things. They deceived us. Well, they did not actually deceive us; we knew their gimmicks, but we did not want to stand in the way of their plans for Afghanistan because it would not have looked good on us. They would have thought we were standing in the way of peace in this country.

Their lack of real interest in building a prosperous, strong Afghanistan helped the Taliban to regroup and come back stronger and impose war on us. What’s interesting about this is that the NATO general, who was saying that a 70-thousand- force army was enough, came back a few years later, saying we need at least 250 to 300 thousand Afghan forces and at least another 120 thousand NATO forces to maintain order in Afghanistan. With 450 thousand forces they couldn’t bring peace to Afghanistan. Again, they had their own plans and thus they had no use for our input. It is not that these generals did not know this; they knew this very well. These generals had fought in Vietnam and in other major 20th century conflicts. They had fought in major theatres on the world stage. But again, because their intention was not to build peace in Afghanistan, they did not listen to us or to what we had to say. NATO is now leaving even though there’s no peace in Afghanistan. There is no security nor is there any development. We are now not only faced with the Taliban, but also with ISIS and many other insurgent groups whose goals involve our destruction and the annihilation of this country. In our fight against the Soviets and against the Taliban, we had an advantage, our economic infrastructure was intact. However, we do not have anything now in terms of our economic strength. And because our economic condition is dire, our people are turning to ISIS and the Taliban in order to survive economically. That’s bad news for us and presents us with another catastrophe.

Knowing how effective and successful you were as a governor in Herat, why doesn’t Abdullah Abdullah appoint you as the governor of this province?

Two factors are at play here but allow me to take a quick detour and talk about another issue that is related to your question. From the very beginning back in 2001, our movement, our efforts in Herat were exemplary throughout Afghanistan. Every province wanted to be like us because we had launched major infrastructure projects.

We had everything in Herat: security, reconstruction, and development. Our efforts kept the people of Herat satisfied with the way our affairs were progressing. We had created an environment of trust, the kind of trust that brought in investors from all over the place and established major business centers. It was during this period of high security and high development that Mr. Karzai, with instructions from Zalmay Khalilzad [US’s former ambassador to Afghanistan], removed me as the governor of Herat. Khalilzad registered my removal from power in Herat as one of his most important achievements in Afghanistan. They removed me from power because they thought I had become too powerful and was on my way to become some sort of a challenge to the central government, but this was of course an excuse for removing me from power. It was really the foreigners who were behind this decision. Now, if the world community had really come to Afghanistan to serve the interests of the Afghan people, why wouldn’t they let me finish what I started in Herat? Our project of building Herat had become exemplary, and in competition with us, other provinces had begun to build their cities, too. Back to your question, there are two reasons as to why Abdullah does not want to appoint me as the governor of Herat. 1) Our government is not independent. It cannot make major decisions on its own. 2) Our government is a coalition-based and conciliatory government.

Therefore, it installs people in power who contributed to its formation. I did not campaign for any political leader. That’s why I’m not being installed in power in Herat or elsewhere. The people who campaigned for Dr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani were promised major government positions. This is a sad thing. Political campaigns have now become an instrument of tension between political leaders. Elections have turned friends into foes and that’s a sad reality. However, by proceeding the way our government is and by the way it chooses people for political office based solely on their contribution to their political campaigns is very unfortunate. Dr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani came to power as a result of John Kerry’s efforts. Their government is made up of people who campaigned for them.

But that’s not good because some of the people that they put in charge are not sophisticated in the matters of running a bureaucracy or governance. Whereas before there was a conflict in three or four provinces, we now have skirmishes with insurgent groups in all provinces and I think we have Mr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah to thank for so much chaos. The coalition-based government in Kabul has isolated many of the key leaders who sacrificed so much to liberate Afghanistan. Our leaders now treat us with distrust and have brought in people who are not liked by the people of this country. It is, therefore, not so surprising to see so much disorder and incoherence in this country when leaders in whom people have no confidence have been put in charge.

How effective is it to bring in a governor from outside given that he/she has no experience in Herat and is not completely familiar with the values and cultural traits of the people of Herat? Here I’m talking about the current governor of Herat, Asif Rahimi.

I was just talking about how appointments are made based on who was of help during the political campaigns. Governor and ministerial appointments are made not by competence but trust. What I mean by that is that Kabul puts governors in charge that they can absolutely trust. Rahimi is a good person and I think he has good intentions and wants to do great work in Herat. But as you say, he is not familiar with the political scene of Herat nor is he familiar with the people of Herat. It is very important for people to have confidence and trust in their leaders. Today, I had a meeting with security commanders from several major districts of Herat. They come to see me because they believe in my leadership.

The fact is that the world community is involved in making these appointments. They have a stake in the affairs of the major provinces in Afghanistan. Another brutal truth is that the world community does not trust major political faces in this country, unfortunately. They distrust major jihadi leaders because they were behind the independence of Afghanistan. We are not after money or power, but after the independence of our nation. But in this world to be independent is to be ostracized. But our struggle is not completed. We must work hard toward our goals – our goals are to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. Even though everyone knows how effective I can be in Herat, and how much people believe in me in this province, Kabul still does not appoint me as the governor of Herat. But again, our government is not independent and it gets it orders from the world community that funds it.

The Americans will eventually leave Afghanistan. Since they are behind the funding of the Afghan government and since they are paying for the Afghan Army and for the Afghan teachers, where do you think Afghanistan will get its financing?

For as long as Afghanistan is dependent on the world community, it’s in the grip of a major tragedy. Afghanistan is five thousand years old. Never before has this country’s teachers, government officials, and army personnel been paid by the foreigners. Also, never before has Afghanistan had a contract soldier; it has always had a draft military. In the last ten years, we, the Afghan people, have become heavily dependent on foreign money and foreign troops. This has been a grave mistake, because throughout history, it has been none of the foreign things that kept this country strong and independent and free. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, I was a major in the Afghan Army. My salary was only $30 and I could comfortably live off it. What is amazing is that people in my district held me in a high regard because I had a government position and was getting paid pretty well. But why can’t the Afghan soldier of today who gets paid almost $450 and still does not feel like he/she is making a comfortable living? Why does an Afghan officer who gets paid up to a $1,000 not feel like his life is good?

So I believe that so long as our army’s personnel’s salaries come from foreigners, we will still be faced with a major catastrophe in this country. How amazing is it that the presidential palace’s employees do not get paid for six months even though billions of dollars have been sent to this country? Imagine how many months has it been since government officials in far distant provinces were paid? These problems are rampant throughout the government. You saw in Herat how many factories, some 250 factories, were built. They were built when I was the governor of Herat. Business people built these factories because they believed in my leadership and believed in the future. This country will be fixed when the people of Afghanistan believe in their government and in their leadership. It’s then – once we have vibrant businesses and robust factories – that we can pay for our army, education, and everything else.

How do you evaluate President Ashraf Ghani’s leadership so far? The people of Afghanistan placed a lot of trust in him, but he has not lived up to their expectations.

Mr. Ghani is a highly educated individual. But leadership rarely has anything to do with education. The key to leading people is to understand and respect their culture, values, and traditions. Leadership is a craft – you can’t really learn it in a classroom setting. The Soviet Union came to Afghanistan with its top generals. These were their extremely educated officers. Yet they incurred defeat at the hands of our very young uneducated soldiers. I truly believe that Mr. Ghani is committing a huge betrayal against this country. He does not trust the people of Afghanistan; he does not believe in them. Whenever he leaves for a foreign country, he does not want to make any one from his cabinet in charge of the government affairs even though Dr. Abdullah is his partner. When it comes to governing, it’s important that the leader transfers his authority to someone else until he’s able to take over the affairs again. Although he has been going abroad for medical treatments frequently, he does not yield authority to Dr. Abdullah or anyone else. This shows you that he does not have faith in anyone in this government or in this country.

As soon as Dr. Ghani came to power, he treated prominent Afghan leaders [Jihadi leaders] with utmost indifference. His first declaration was that those who were once ministers couldn’t become ministers again. And those who were once governors, couldn’t become governors again. What Mr. Ghani does not understand is that becoming a governor or minister requires a mountain of experience. Which is better: someone who has spent years in government or someone with no government experience? Look at his cabinet right now. Never before has Afghanistan had such a weak, incompetent cabinet in its history. These decisions show that Mr. Ghani is incapable of leadership. The situation we have today in Afghanistan did not exist during the Soviet Union or during the Taliban regime. We have a catastrophic situation in Afghanistan today. Why do so many people leave Afghanistan in great numbers? This is a tragedy because our human and financial capital is leaving Afghanistan every day. These people leave Afghanistan because they have lost faith in the leadership of Mr. Ghani. Unemployment is through the roof. Insecurity has become a daily reality. Given all this, I don’t think he’s someone fit for leading this country.

What do you think of the Taliban? We now know that Mullah Omar, the leader, has been dead for two years. Given that they no longer have a leader, do you think they will remain a force to be reckoned with? If not, will ISIS take over as the number one fighting force against the Afghan National Army?

I think you have answered your question. In the last two years, the Taliban have intensified their activities throughout Afghanistan even though they have no leader. When Mullah Omar was alive, the Taliban were a much a weaker force. Today, with Mullah Omar gone, they have become much stronger. What this tells you is that this war is not run by the Taliban, but rather by Pakistan and its military and intelligence establishments. Pakistan keeps saying that it is not behind the Taliban; if that’s the case, then where are the Taliban getting their funds from to continue their fight against the people of Afghanistan? We are not at war with the Taliban. We are at war with Pakistan. We can disappear the Taliban from Afghanistan in a week. There are foot soldiers in the Taliban’s ranks from all over the world today. This shows you that this is a highly organized, incredibly sophisticated operation run by the Pakistani government. The war we have today began back in the 1950’s and 60’s in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has long-term strategic objectives in Afghanistan. And this war will not end until the Afghan government renounces its territorial claim over the Durand Line.

I ask Mr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah to come to their senses. Their government is doomed to collapse. I don’t think their government will last another year. For this government to continue its existence, it must place faith in this country’s most prominent leaders – leaders who fought against the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Mr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah must not treat this country’s leaders with apathy and disrespect. Some 4,000 Afghan soldiers desert every month. The more the fighting intensifies, the more soldiers go AWOL. This is because these soldiers don’t have strong leaders who can motivate them to stay in the fight. We need to develop new ways of fighting against the Taliban, ways that worked against the Soviets. To do that, we need leaders from that period of time to once again place faith and honor in soldiers’ hearts so that we can defeat the Taliban and their allies.

Is there any country around the world that has been a true friend of the Afghan people?

I don’t think such a country exists. In this world, every country is on its own. The poorer you are as a country, the more problems you will have. That’s a reality. World countries and your neighboring countries give you respect when you wield power, when you are a force to be reckoned with. Around the world, you see that neighboring countries have amicable relationships and export all sorts of commodities to one another. This, alas, is not the case in Afghanistan. Our neighbors export to us terrorists and bombs to further render us weak and powerless.