What's Behind Former Afghan Warlord Ismail Khan's Public Call to Arms?

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He's stirring renewed fears of civil war. He's also the country's current energy and water minister.

Afgh militia banner.jpg
Afghan militia participate in a disarmament drive called 'Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration' (DDR) backed by the United Nations in Kabul, on July 24th, 2004. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

In an ominous sign as international forces draw down in Afghanistan, one of the country's most powerful former militia commanders recently issued a call to arms to his supporters. Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former mujahedin commander in western Afghanistan who is currently the country's energy and water minister, told his supporters at a gathering in Herat on November 1 that they needed to rearm to defend the country from "foreign conspirators."

Ismail Khan's announcement comes amid wavering confidence in the Afghan government and its security forces as U.S. and NATO-led ISAF troops prepare to leave the country. The move has fuelled fears that regional and factional leaders could rearm, undermining support for the Afghan government and increasing the possibility of another civil war.

Afghan lawmakers have slammed Ismail Khan's move as illegal and have called for him to be removed from his ministerial position. Meanwhile, officials in Herat Province say they have proof that Ismail Khan has already begun distributing arms to his militia. Ismail Khan, who is engaged in a power struggle with the provincial government, has refuted the allegation and said his words were misinterpreted.

Ismail Khan said in early November it was time for the mujahedin to rearm and succeed where foreign forces, which he described as "girls," had failed. He said the Herat militia, which he dubbed a "mujahedin military wing," would help the Afghan government respond to likely security concerns after 2014. "The foreigners sidelined those who had fought for ages," Ismail Khan said during his speech in Herat in November. "They collected all our weapons, our artillery and tanks, and put them on the rubbish heap. Instead, they brought Dutch girls, French girls, they armed American girls .... They thought by doing this they would bring security here, but they failed."

Ismail Khan added he had the full backing of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He said the Herat militia was just the start of a new remobilization of former mujahedin. "I have spoken in detail with the president, who is a former mujahedin member himself," he said. "We are now working on registering names, an agenda, and a draft structure for a nationwide mujahedin formation."

Wider, Ominous Trend

In the face of fierce opposition, Ismail Khan has since said he regretted that his remarks were misinterpreted as suggesting that people be armed and the mujahedin open another round of civil strife. He also said in a press conference in Kabul on November 11 that evidence proving he was rearming the militia was false and fabricated. "If we have distributed even a single weapon, we are ready to be judged by the Afghan people and accept the most severe punishment," Ismail Khan said. "The governance there [in Herat] is weak. We need a powerful governor to prevent insecurity."

Nevertheless, Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the Center for National Policy, an independent think tank based in Washington, D.C., says Ismail Khan's comments hint at a wider remobilization of former local and regional militias. Evans says the international presence has kept a lid on ongoing tensions between the country's long-warring factions, but he expects that to change as Western soldiers get closer to their expected withdrawal date.

"The conflict in Afghanistan is an aggregation of small local and regional conflicts. Counterinsurgency has not solved any of these conflicts," Evans explains. "So, what we're seeing from Ismail Khan is a very natural reaction to that. We're going to see more of it as we get closer to 2014, and after 2014 as local communities begin to arm themselves."

Fears of Fragmentation

Ismail Khan's idea to rearm local militias is nothing new. In fact, the United States has made it its policy in recent years to rearm many of the same militias it disarmed and demobilized at the beginning of the war. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Washington has spent millions on a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program for former mujahedin, members of Western-backed jihadist groups who fought the Soviet Union and later the Taliban. Former mujahedin commanders like Ismail Khan were given high-ranking positions within the government in a nod to national unity.

But with support from the Afghan Interior Ministry, the U.S. and British militaries have changed course and trained and armed the Afghan Local Police, a 13,000-strong force that is divided into some 80 units across Afghanistan. The government-sponsored militias are intended to provide security in remote villages across rural areas where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest. In theory, these local militias are meant to come under the command of the existing national security forces' hierarchy. But in reality, their allegiance lies with local warlords.

Evans says the biggest concern about these local and regional militias is the strain they will impose on the "institutional coherence" of the Afghan security forces. He says that strain may lead to the crumbling of the national security forces along factional, tribal, and ethnic lines.

That was the case in the early 1990s, when such a fragmentation precipitated the fall of the leftist Afghan government and led to civil war. "When you create militias alongside [the national security forces] that don't fit very neatly in their command structure, you're imposing a strain on the force that could fragment the force after the ISAF draw-down," Evans says. "Afghanistan's biggest concern is actually not the Taliban but the fragmentation of the Afghan national security forces and how that can lead to civil war."

Rumors Of War

Afghan lawmakers vented their anger at Ismail Khan during a session of the Afghan upper house on November 10. Mohammad Amin Safi, a senator and head of the Internal Security Committee, said Ismail Khan's move was "illegal" and would further destabilize the country. "The consequences of these actions will be harmful. Local people will be threatened by these militias. Weapons shouldn't be distributed by individuals. I will find out where the weapons came from because they weren't from the government," Amin Safi said. "If the mujahedin want to defend Afghanistan they should do so inside the framework of the Defense and Interior ministries."

His comments come after Mahiuddin Noor, the provincial spokesman in Herat, brandished documents to reporters on November 7 claiming Ismail Khan had begun distributing small arms to the militia. Khuwaja Shamsuddin, a former militia member under Ismail Khan who was speaking the same day to Afghanistan's Tolo TV, denied weapons had been distributed but said that "30 to 40 mujahedin units" had been inaugurated and their commanders assigned.

Daud Shah Saba, governor of Herat Province, said Ismail Khan's actions were a criminal offense and were being investigated. He said Ismail Khan began reorganizing the militia several months ago. Saba said the authorities originally mistook the militia for a civil movement but soon realized its "military and political objectives."

"We are receiving information from various villages and districts that people are being mobilized and have been promised various weapons," he said. "We even have information about their salaries."




This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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