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Struggle for power feared in Herat

November 16, 2001

By Guy Dinmore in Herat
Published: November 16 2001

Ismail Khan, leader of Northern Alliance forces in Herat, western Afghanistan, declared on Friday he would advance on the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Kandahar if the Pashtun regime did not withdraw. He also urged newly arrived British troops to leave the country.

But while the 54-year-old Sunni Muslim Tajik commander has been considering pushing further south, some 2,000 fighters of the allied but ethnically distinct Shia Muslim Hezb-e-Wahdat have poured into Herat, raising fears of a power struggle in the city.

Political and religious leaders from both sides urged calm. But a senior military commander of Hezb-e-Wahdat said his forces would not go to Kandahar. He also said he did not recognise Ismail Khan as governor of ethnically mixed Herat, as he has been declared by his party, Jamiat-e-Islami.

Once again Afghanistan appears threatened by the fragmentation into fiefdoms that followed the collapse of the Communist government in 1992.

Giving his first press conference since Herat fell to the Alliance on Monday, Ismail Khan said his forces had seized Shindand in the western border province of Farah, 450km from Kandahar, and had taken more than 400 Taliban prisoners. “We will liberate Kandahar from terrorists. If the terrorists don’t want to get out, then I will go in,” he said.

Pashtun tribal leaders backing the exiled king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, have fought Taliban forces and their Arab and Pakistani volunteer fighters in Kandahar province. They are said to be demanding Taliban surrender the city, which the US bombed on Friday.

Ismail Khan, who commands great loyalty among fellow Tajiks in the north-west, said the US raids had been effective in destroying Taliban defences but it was the Afghan people who had liberated their own country and there was no need for any foreign forces in Afghanistan, UN or otherwise.

“People are very sensitive about the presence of foreigners in Afghanistan. We don’t need them,” he said, adding that Kabul was secure and that 100 British troops who had arrived to fix Bagram airport, near the capital, would be making a mistake if they stayed.

Recognising the internal sensitivities, Ismail Khan said he had not adopted any title, although at this point an aide interjected to insist that he had been chosen as governor of Herat at a meeting of city elders in the main Sunni mosque on Wednesday.

Afghanistan, Ismail Khan said, needed a powerful coalition of wise and efficient figures, not one based on tribal or religious affiliations. He also said the former king, now based in Rome, was a respected personality and had the right to return.

Such remarks are unlikely to sit well with the Shia Hazara, the Iranian-backed minority that has come under attack from Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks over the past decade.

Haji Sheikh Azizula Najafi, a leading cleric among the Shia of Herat who was jailed and tortured by the Taliban for denouncing their attacks on Shia mosques, says he did not fear clashes in the city for religious reasons any more.

“But it could happen for political reasons over power sharing. Now we detect faint signs of this conflict,” he said.

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