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Afghan leaders in move to avert tribal split

January 31, 2002

The Financial Times, Jan 31, 2002

Pashtun tribal leaders from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar yesterday met Ismail Khan, the powerful
ethnic Tajik governor of Herat, to resolve a dispute over trade and prisoners that threatened to break
apart the country’s new interim government along old ethnic lines.

The arrival of the Pashtun delegation in Herat follows reports that Gul Agha Shirzai, governor of Kandahar,
was mustering an army to march northwards against Ismail Khan’s forces, who they accuse of receiving
support from neighbouring Iran.

Little more than a week since an international donors conference in Tokyo pledged Dollars 4.5bn (Pounds
3.1bn) for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, there are growing concerns about instability and the return
of the country to tribal conflict that would seriously undermine efforts to rebuild it. Diplomats at the
United Nations said growing instability in the western provinces had become one of their most pressing

Although the UN Security Council and countries that have contributed troops are wary about expanding the
international force in Afghanistan, discussions have begun over whether to send troops to Herat, diplomats

While the opening of direct talks between Herat and Kandahar appears to have removed an immediate threat of armed conflict, the absence of any representative from Kabul illustrates the difficulties Hamid Karzai, the chairman of the interim government, faces in establishing direct authority over the country.

Wakil Achiq Zai, leader of the Pashtun delegation, dismissed suggestions of a renewed north-south
conflict, telling reporters after a day with Ismail Khan that negotiations were the only way. Members of
the 100-strong Pashtun mission, with its own armed escort, describe Ismail Khan as the “mujahideen

General John McColl, head of the multinational security force in Kabul, was invited to Herat by
Ismail Khan on Tuesday. Details of their meeting were not disclosed but Ismail Khan told reporters he had
“suggested” to the central government of Hamid Karzai that foreign forces were not needed in Herat province, although it was up to Kabul to decide.

The idea is fraught with risk. The international security force numbers less than 3,000 troops and has
a mandate that confines it to Kabul and its suburbs. Establishing a presence in Herat is likely to require
a significant increase in soldiers and an expansion of the international force’s airfield capacity to support
the extra troops.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, the Security Council, with Mr Karzai in attendance,
warned: “It is essential for the Afghanistan interim authority and for a new government of Afghanistan to
fully respect the basic human rights of all Afghan people, regardless of gender, ethnicity and religion.
It is high time that the leaders and representatives of different ethnic groups within Afghanistan forgo
their differences and invest in the construction of a nation with sound democratic credentials.”

Mr Karzai is scheduled to travel to Herat on hisreturn to Afghanistan.

In its statement yesterday, the Security Council sent an implicit warning to Iran. “The reconciliation,
reconstruction and rehabilitation process should not be derailed by any outside pressure or intervention.”

Ismail Khan rose to prominence in 1980, leading a rebellion against occupying Soviet troops in Herat.
Despite intermittent support provided by Iran, he has preserved a degree of independence in his fiefdom that he is loath to relinquish.

Contrary to suspicions in the US that Iran is bolstering Ismail Khan in an attempt to weaken the
interim government, diplomats in Tehran believe that Iran has played a positive role in encouraging the
warlord to embrace the peace process and integrate his forces with the new national army that is emerging.

While hardline clerics in Iran would oppose a wider
deployment of foreign troops in Afghanistan, Iranian
sources in Teheran told the Financial Times that Iran
would accept an expansion of the security mandate
beyond Kabul if the Afghan factions agreed.

On the ground, the prevailing opinion among the people
of Herat – a city of diverse ethic groups divided
between Sunni and Shia Muslims – is that foreign
troops would help to keep the peace and prevent Ismail
Khan from leading the province towards isolation. An
elder of the Shia minority said he was preparing to
issue a public appeal for the International Security
Force to come to Herat.

The main issue for the Kandahar delegation is the
state of more than 1,500 Pashtuns taken prisoner in
the Herat region since the collapse of the mainly
Pashtun Taliban regime in November. Ismail Khan said
they were prisoners of war, but according to the
Pashtun delegation the two sides agreed to joint
interviews of the captives to establish their

Pashtuns, forming the largest ethnic group in
Afghanistan with a small minority in Herat, complain
security forces under Ismail Khan are persecuting them
by raiding homes and villages, stealing goods and
taking prisoners. Many are preparing to leave the
province or have sought safety in teeming refugee

A crowd of local Pashtuns presented the Kandahari
elders with letters listing their grievances of
property stolen and relatives arrested.

In Dahana Kamar Qala, a settlement of mud houses
outside Herat, Pashtun- speaking nomads said their
head man had been seized this week after raids in
which Ismail Khan’s forces have stolen anything of
value. Tajiks living nearby had little sympathy,
accusing the Pashtuns of using their Taliban
protectors to take land and bully their neighbours.
The area, they said, had also been a dumping ground
for prisoners executed by the Taliban.

Ismail Khan says the arrests are part of a campaign to
root out fugitive Taliban elements and that he wants
Herat to preserve its historic, multi-ethnic
character. But even Tajiks admit their community is
wreaking revenge on the Pashtuns for the oppression
that Tajiks suffered under Taliban rule.

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