HERAT, Afghanistan — One of the most powerful former mujahedeen commanders in Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, is calling on his followers to reorganize and defend the country as Western militaries withdraw, in a public demonstration of faltering confidence in the national government and the Western-built Afghan National Army.
Khan is one of the strongest of a group of warlords who defined the country’s recent history in battling the Soviets, the Taliban and one another, and who then were brought into President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet as a symbol of unity. Now, in announcing that he is remobilizing his forces, Khan has rankled Afghan officials and stoked fears that other regional and factional leaders will follow suit and re-arm, weakening support for the government and increasing the likelihood of civil war.
This month, Khan rallied thousands of his supporters in the desert outside Herat, the cultured western provincial capital and the center of his power base, urging them to coordinate and reactivate their networks. And he has begun enlisting new recruits and organizing district command structures.
“We are responsible for maintaining security in our country and not letting Afghanistan be destroyed again," Khan, the minister of energy and water, said at a news conference over the weekend at his offices in Kabul. But after facing weeks of criticism, he took care not to frame his action as defying the government: “There are parts of the country where the government forces cannot operate, and in such areas the locals should step forward, take arms and defend the country."
Karzai and his aides, however, were not greeting it as an altruistic gesture. The governor of Herat province called Khan’s reorganization an illegal challenge to the national security forces. And Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, tersely criticized Khan.
“The remarks by Ismail Khan do not reflect the policies of the Afghan government," Faizi said. “The government of Afghanistan and the Afghan people do not want any irresponsible armed grouping outside the legitimate security forces structures."
In Kabul, Khan’s provocative actions have played out in the news media and brought a fierce reaction from some members of Parliament, who said the former warlords were preparing to take advantage of the U.S. troop withdrawal set for 2014.
“People like Ismail Khan smell blood," Belqis Roshan, a senator from Farah province, said in an interview. “They think that as soon as foreign forces leave Afghanistan, once again they will get the chance to start a civil war, and achieve their ominous goals of getting rich and terminating their local rivals."
Indeed, Khan’s is not the only voice calling for a renewed alliance of the mujahedeen against the Taliban, and some of the others are just as familiar.
Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, an ethnic Tajik commander who is Karzai’s first vice president, said in a speech in September, “If the Afghan security forces are not able to wage this war, then call upon the mujahedeen."
Another prominent former mujahedeen fighter, Ahmad Zia Massoud, said in an interview at his home in Kabul that people were worried about what was going to happen after 2014, and he was telling his own followers to make preliminary preparations.