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

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."

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