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Khan greets me with charm and warmth, and, after hearing so much about his Taliban-like policies, I’m surprised that he’s Western enough to make eye contact with a woman. Mohammed begins to ask my questions and Khan answers in Farsi, directing his response alternately to me and to Mohammed. He speaks evenly and clearly in a tone somewhere between public oratory and conversation.
“This is the only province in Afghanistan in which the growing and transport of the [opium] poppy has been banned,” he tells me. “If you go to Herat customs office, you can see that they took the narcotic from the people coming through here. But in Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul provinces thousands of people are growing [opium]. That narcotic is grown in those areas, and the people who are in this business wanted to transport it through Herat to Iran and Turkmenistan. My being here meant that they could never achieve their goals. Some important people in the Afghan government along with international mafia are involved in this traffic.
“And some people in the government did not want to see Herat in such good condition. Some people wanted to show the international community that they had the power to remove me.
“Then there is the election. They thought that my presence would prevent bad activity during the election. Naturally, my removal will have a benefit for Mr. Karzai. But the Herat people do not support this change. They do not support the new governor.”
On September 12, a day after Karzai deposed Khan, a mob of irate Khan supporters sacked one of the U.N. offices in Herat. Widespread riots continued into the next day. I ask Khan why this happened.
“They used Amanullah to depose me,” he says, referring to the Pashtun warlord who has moved against Ismail Khan’s government many times in the last few months. “They used him as a puppet. Over three years, the United Nations and coalition forces had contact with Amanullah. He was one of the top Taliban commanders. No one can ignore that he was one of them. The people understood that they would not have any advantage from Amanullah,” he says.
“One hundred fifty-four civilians and 80 soliders were killed in this fighting,” he says. “Children have been killed, including a 12-year-old girl. The houses of 400 families have been burned and plundered by Amanullah’s men.” The new governor, Sayeed Mohammed Khairkhwa, formerly Afghanistan’s ambassador to Ukraine, “doesn’t allow them to return home,” Khan claims.
“Do you see all these women waiting to see me? They are waiting because they have lost their husbands or brothers or sons.”
As if on cue, one of the women opposite me begins a long litany of woes in a high-pitched voice. Her conviction is compromised for me by her wearing a gold pendant in the shape of a dollar sign, but Mohammed explains that her husband had disappeared.
Khan continues, “That woman, her husband was working as a security guard on the Herat-Kandahar highway, and now he is untraceable. There are 44 people missing. Their bodies have not been found. The most shameful action of the coalition forces is that they cannot find the bodies.”
The other women chime in with their own stories, and Mohammed signals that my interview is over. I thank Khan and ask one last question: Whom does he support in the election?
“It is too early for me to say,” he replies, though the election is exactly two weeks away.
A half-hour later, I am back in my hotel Googling ferociously to find out how much of what Khan says checks out.