MAZAR-E-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN, SEPTEMBER 25 — I’m sitting in the office of the head of Herat University when Farhad, the slight, nervous man who’d met me at the airport an hour before, comes in to the office to tell me that his friend will take me to see Ismail Khan, the controversial and recently deposed warlord-governor of Herat Province, for an interview that had been arranged for me.
“Now?” I’m shaken. I’d just come off the plane from Kabul an hour ago, and I’d thought the interview would be tomorrow, or — as happens in Afghanistan — even a day or two later. I hadn’t had time to speak with anyone “in the street” to see what they thought of the recent turmoil, which had ended in Prime Minister Hamid Karzai’s removal of Khan, known in the U.S. media as “an ethnic Tajik strongman,” from the governorship of Herat Province. Karzai’s people had said that Khan had been removed for the “peace and security” of the region after several violent clashes between Khan’s forces and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun, and that Ismail Khan had been offered another government job as minister of mines and industries, which he’d turned down. I’d planned to ask Ismail Khan for his side of the story, since no one seemed to have told it, but I had hoped to get some sense of the atmosphere first.
The only good thing about the timing is that I’m wearing my most conservative Islamic dress, a floor-length black nylon robe I’d bought in Yemen. Ismail Khan, an Islamic traditionalist, has urged Herati women to wear the burka.
Farhad walks me to the street where a beat-up Toyota Corolla waits for us. Another short, frail, brown-skinned man is in the driver’s seat, tense and shifty-looking and wearing a stained suit. He doesn’t speak any English, and as we drive away from the university, it occurs to me to ask him if I can get a translator. People seem to understand the questions I ask, but I’m not able to understand half of the answers. I’d planned to look for a politically unaffiliated translator in the afternoon, but now I have to take whomever Khan’s people want. I know enough Farsi to know if a translator is making something up out of whole cloth, but I’d still rather not have taken one straight from the Khan camp.
We stop at a small row of shops, and the driver disappears into one. He emerges with a taller, robust man named Mohammed — Farhad’s brother. His English is pretty decent, without the whiny, up-and-down cadences of many young Afghans. Maybe he’d learned it in Iran, where Khan was in exile during the Taliban period.
“What do you want to ask?” Mohammed begins. “Tell me and I will write the questions down. Keep your questions short. There are many people waiting to see him, and we will not have much time.”
“A lot of American newspapers have said Mr. Khan is a jang-salar [warlord] and that it’s a good thing Mr. Karzai got rid of him,” I say. “I want to hear what Mr. Khan has to say.”
We reach the door of a large compound. Armed men loiter at the gate. Familiar with warlord etiquette after spending a couple of weeks at General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s guesthouse in 2002, I open my tote bag for a weapons inspection.
Mohammed and I review my questions once more before we’re called to see Ismail Khan. “He will be with a group of women, so if anyone objects when I come in, you must explain that I am your translator,” Mohammed warns. We walk out of the kiosk, up a set of stairs to a terrace, and into a huge, high-ceilinged reception room.
It is the largest room I’ve ever seen in Afghanistan. Sofas face each other with long coffee tables between them; tea and plates of candies and nuts are offered on the tables. The most important man in the room sits bala — literally, “high,” or at the head of the table. Guests are ordered in rank according to their distance from the head.
Ismail Khan is, of course, bala, dressed all in white from skullcap to salwar kameez, with a fuzzy white beard to boot. At first he doesn’t make much of an impression on me; I’m more struck by the 20 women surrounding him, most with their burkas pulled back over their heads. I can’t figure out why they’re here. Usually the only reason you see a large group of women in public is if they’re a professional association or a women’s council.
The couches are completely filled. I remember from my anthropology readings to walk in and wait for someone to offer you a place. It’s a bad idea to take a seat, even if one seems open, because you may be sitting higher than you’re meant to. But as I approach the table, the women to Khan’s left move away from him, and he motions for me to sit there. Mohammed sits to the right of Khan on his sofa. I am disappointed to see that the two appear to be old pals.
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.