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Alternatives to the ANA? Ismail Khan rattles his sabre…

November 3, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: A single news report from Afghanistan suggests that one Afghan Minister (and former warlord) may be creating a military unit independent of the official armed forces.  The story may come to nothing, but needs to be kept track of.

Look, its just a bunch of T-55 tanks, ok? Had them for ages. Dunno what the fuss is about…

Tolo News had a brief story (The Daily Telegraph also picked up their story) about former warlord and current Minister of Energy and Water, Ismail Khan, which claimed he was in the process of creating a “mujahideen military unit” in order to provide security where ISAF had failed to do so.  Ismail Khan was reportedly very critical of ISAF’s performance overall.  The article also claimed that this idea of a mujahideen unit was already recruiting and had been discussed with President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan’s Minister of Energy and Water Mohammad Ismail Khan on Thursday said that the process of creating a military unit made up of the former mujahedeen fighters is underway to protect and secure Afghanistan because Nato had failed to do so.

Ismail Khan said in a gathering with former regional Jihadi commanders in west and southwest Afghanistan that the Mujahedeen should also be given more roles in the government as the foreign armies – the Nato-led international security assistance force Isaf – had failed to ensure stability in the country.

He emphasised that just as the Mujahedeen had previously driven out the foreign invaders, the Soviets, so too there was now a need for the Mujahedeen to again rescue the country from “foreign conspiracies”.

“The foreigners sidelined those who had fought for ages,” Ismail Khan said in western Herat province.

“They collected all our weapons, our artillery and tanks, and put them on the rubbish heap. Instead, they brought Dutch girls, French girls, girls from Holland, they armed American girls, they brought white-skinned Western soldiers, and black-skinned American soldiers, and they thought by doing all this they would bring security here but they failed,” he added.

Khan claimed that President Hamid Karzai is aware of the plans to re-form the mujahedeen armed forces.

“We have had detailed discussions with President Hamid Karzai, who is a Mujahed himself. We are planning on this strategy and the registration of people is underway,” he said.

He added that the future Afghan president to be introduced at the next election in 2014 should be elected in close collaboration with the Mujahedeen council.

The Council is understood to have been formed by Ismail Khan, himself a former Jihadi commander in Herat.

Analysis and Outlook

It’s a strange story to be confronted with.  There doesn’t appear to be any collateral reporting (ie the media is just recycling the initial Tolo article).  Although it may be a big nothing, it is definitely one to keep an eye on.  The notion that “former” warlords might be openly preparing their own military forces starts one thinking immediately of civil war, an “arms race” between factions and the re-fragmentation of the country.  Ismail Khan, the “Lion of Herat”, is a famous (or infamous) ethnic Tajik warlord from Western Afghanistan, fighting both the Soviets (he defected from the Soviet-backed Afghan army in the late 1970s)  and the Taliban.  He was also captured by both.  He was prised from the governorship of Herat in, I think, 2004, and given a ministerial position, perhaps a classic Karzai interpretation of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.  He has been relatively quiet in this position, but this does not mean he has not been doing anything to further his position and status.  Note also his alleged comments made about the ineffectiveness of ISAF which verge on offensive and racist and also on the Presidential election and Ismail’s potential role.

Antonio Giustozzi described warlords effectively in this AAN piece here:

“In the Hobbesian world of war-torn Afghanistan, warlords are ‘service providers’ to a much larger ‘military class’ of petty local military commanders. Those local commanders network to secure supplies, political representation, and — most importantly — military backup. Warlords often command the networks, especially in western and northern Afghanistan. The most powerful, influential, and charismatic leaders (such as Dostum and Ismail Khan) even develop ‘networks of networks’, becoming national players and formulating alliances with political actors struggling for control in Kabul.”

Many former Mujahideen – ie those Afghan fighters who, from their perspective, fought and defeated first the Soviets and then the Taliban (the role of US assistance in both victories probably gets diminished with each retelling).  In 2002-2004 in particular, I recall much Afghan debate about the extent to which these Northern Alliance fighters should be rewarded for this service.  Fahim Khan, then Defence Minister, was in favour of giving every one of them a guaranteed job in the very fledgling Afghan army.  In those days that would have meant creating an Afghan army of 300,000 – 400,000 when the international community was only prepared to contemplate a 72,000 strong force.

There is no clue to the content or nature of the alleged “military unit”, nor what may or may not have passed between Ismail and Karzai by way of discussion (let alone agreement) which is why caution should be applied in the analysis.  A few immediate thoughts and possible scenarios:

  1. This might be a grumble from Ismail for other political reasons – people plotting against him, allegations of corruption (see here).  Rattle a sabre and get people to back down…?
  2. On a similar track, it might also be posturing of some sort as a build up to the Presidential elections, announced recently for April 2014.  Warlords of Ismail’s track record – and this might also include Dostum and Fahim – might have only a small chance of getting elected themselves, but they do represent significant block votes of support which they will bargain away for other concessions – a position in the cabinet, for example.  This and the above scenario should be considered in the context of his other comments allegedly made – on ISAF and the Afghan Presidential elections
  3. It might have been a much looser discussion than suggested in the article; a senior minister and the Presdeint discussing security problems generally in the run up to the ISAF transition.  A vague set of moans and half-thought out ideas have to been presented as something powerful and decisive to the media  – compulsory for any self-respecting warlord.
  4. Further to the above, it might simply be Ismail Khan’s interpretation of some exisiting force – perhaps some more Afghan Local Police units are being set up in Western Afghanistan and he likes to think of it has his initiative (“nothing happens on my turf without my say so”).
  5. It could also be an agreement for an Ismail Khan bodyguard force to be created (or expanded).  Warlords do like their bodyguards.  Makes them feel safe and secure and important.
  6. Karzai does have “erratic and emotional” decision-making moments.  Maybe Ismail caught him on a good day (ie when he was particularly irritated by ISAF and the international community).  Confronted by more bad news about the state of the ANSF and the likely stability of the country post-2014 and a particularly persuasive warlord offering an alternative “fully Afghanised” solution that might work in one part of the country – maybe Karzai has approved an Ismail initiative.  Or thinks he has approved it.  Or, at any rate, Ismail thinks he has approved it.  In this scenario, the international community has to dive in and get everyone to back track and re-phrase what may have been said in a way that makes it look like no one has said or done anything stupid and everyone remains “on track”, whatever that may mean this week.  Another “no progess, merely another crisis avoided” quarter of a year of diplomatic and political time wasted…
  7. Worst case scenario a).  This might be a worrying escalatory initiative by Ismail, breaking ranks and doing his own thing.  Old jihadi networks never die, they simply await the call (and the money).  In this possible scenario, I would want to spend a few moments thinking about the countries Ismail has been visiting, or plans to visit in the future, for weapons and funds (Iran, Russia, Central Asia, India…).
  8. Worst case scenario b). Ismail’s initiative is in conjunction with, or is followed by, other similar initiatives from other key players – Dostum, Atta, Pacha Khan Zadran… A destabilising series of arms races (“well, if he’s doing it, I’d better start doing it before it’s too late”).  In such a situation, the prospects of sending in the ANSF to disarm or confront (or accidentally clash with) these illegal forces would be very, very serious.

I sense it that, perhaps for one or more of the reasons above, this will turn out to be a nothing story.  But the implications would be very significant if there was some truth in it.  For the moment I am going to play the “too early to tell” analytical cop out and refer it the “One to Watch” bin…

Additional reading:

A BBC biographic on Ismail from 2004

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