Q&A

‘The Taliban Have Not and Will Not Ever Change’

Ismail Khan, fabled warlord and former governor, is back again on the front lines to fend off the Taliban advance.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
Ismail Khan, the leader of Herat's militia, gives orders to his forces during a clash with the Taliban inside Herat city, Afghanistan, on Aug. 2.
Ismail Khan, the leader of Herat's militia, gives orders to his forces during a clash with the Taliban inside Herat city, Afghanistan, on Aug. 2. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s western city of Herat is fighting for its life. The Taliban have reached the city gates and for almost two weeks have been battling security forces and citizen militias raised by the warlord Ismail Khan.

Khan has been a prominent figure in Afghan politics for decades, and his name is synonymous with Herat. As a mujahideen leader in the 1980s, he fought the occupying forces of the former Soviet Union and then fought the Taliban regime that ruled over most of Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. As governor of Herat province from 2001 to 2004, he expanded his empire and wealth, while also improving civic services, until being appointed as minister of energy and water, a position he held until 2013.

After Ashraf Ghani became president in 2014 and set about limiting the power of the warlords who had long held sway over different parts of the country, Khan became one of his most vocal opponents.

Afghanistan’s western city of Herat is fighting for its life. The Taliban have reached the city gates and for almost two weeks have been battling security forces and citizen militias raised by the warlord Ismail Khan.

Khan has been a prominent figure in Afghan politics for decades, and his name is synonymous with Herat. As a mujahideen leader in the 1980s, he fought the occupying forces of the former Soviet Union and then fought the Taliban regime that ruled over most of Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. As governor of Herat province from 2001 to 2004, he expanded his empire and wealth, while also improving civic services, until being appointed as minister of energy and water, a position he held until 2013.

After Ashraf Ghani became president in 2014 and set about limiting the power of the warlords who had long held sway over different parts of the country, Khan became one of his most vocal opponents.

Now, after a few quiet years, Khan has suddenly reappeared on the national stage at the head of his loyal militia taking on the Taliban once more. Video footage of the 75-year-old—with a long white beard and trademark black-and-white turban wrapped around his head—jogging across Herat’s Pashtun Bridge surrounded by his personal army has galvanized the country. For days, Khan’s men, alongside the Afghan army, police, and intelligence services, have helped keep the Taliban out of Herat’s city center.

Khan talked to Foreign Policy in the mint-scented garden of his front-line redoubt in Ab Borada, on the edges of Herat city, about why he felt it necessary to join the fight against the Taliban, the failures of the government’s forces to prevent insurgents from taking control of districts across the country, and why he believes there will never be peace in Afghanistan unless other countries stop interfering. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: How is the security situation in Herat?

Ismail Khan: When districts around the country began falling into the hands of the Taliban, the government didn’t do enough, and this enabled the Taliban to reach the gates of the cities. We recognized that government forces were not fighting, were doing nothing to repel the Taliban fighters. So we asked the people to form a resistance movement. The people of Herat responded by taking up their weapons and preparing to resist. Along with the government’s security forces and with the cooperation of the police and security forces, we stopped the Taliban advance. And this is what we are doing now, to save our people and to save Herat.

A wounded militiaman from Khan's forces is attended to during a clash with Taliban forces inside Herat city on Aug. 2.

A wounded militiaman from Khan’s forces is attended to during a clash with Taliban forces inside Herat city on Aug. 2. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

FP: Why have so many districts across the country, and in Herat province, fallen to the Taliban?

IK: There are a lot of reasons that, unfortunately, the government has not been in control of this disaster or done a good job of governance. One reason is that people do not believe the government’s security forces are trustworthy, that they have no discipline and are lacking leadership. For these and other reasons, government forces just didn’t fight, and the Taliban were able to take control of districts. Unfortunately, in Herat many districts have also fallen to the Taliban. The Taliban have reached the gate of Herat city.

“[The Taliban] are even more cruel now than they have ever been.”

FP: Do you believe that the Taliban have changed? 

IK: The Taliban have not and will not ever change. They still use violence, and they violate human rights and women’s rights. They also are against civil rights, civil society. There is no change in their psychology or ideology, and they appear to be even more violent and even more proud—and it is this attitude and approach that they bring to their fight. Whenever they take control of districts or regions, they are even more cruel now than they have ever been. 

FP: You clearly believe you are going to win, though some of your fighters tell me the fight in Herat is stalemated. Where does Herat—and Afghanistan—go from here? 

IK: Well, it is a huge war. In this huge war, unfortunately, we have seen that government forces have not fought, or fought effectively, against the Taliban. The resistance movement here in Herat is new; it’s a young movement, formed only 23 days ago. These forces will become more disciplined, more professional, better trained, and will soon understand more about war. And then I am certain that they can push the Taliban much more effectively.

FP: Are you confident that the fight will be won and that there will be peace in Afghanistan? 

IK: All Afghans, ordinary people and officials, want peace. But the peace process has been kidnapped. If the peace process was just between the two sides of the fight, then we would see a result. But all the regional countries, neighbors, and the international community that had a presence in Afghanistan interfere in the peace process for their own benefit. Under these circumstances, peace cannot be achieved. We ask the regional countries and the international community to work together to create a forum to ensure the peace process is between two sides only, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. In that way, they can help ensure that peace does come to this country with strong and serious support. I certainly believe and trust that in this way, the peace process will achieve its goal of ending war in Afghanistan. In the current form, however, with everyone interfering, it is not going anywhere. 

FP: You have been accused of trying to take over the fight from government security forces for your own ends. Is this true? 

IK: No. When we saw that the government was incapable or just too weak in the fight against the Taliban, as they were taking so many districts and getting close to the provincial capitals, we decided to mobilize citizens and ask them to come together to create the resistance movement. In doing so, we support the government security forces. And we asked the government of Afghanistan to unite with us, to work together against the Taliban, to save this city. We have never demanded all the authority in the fight here. We asked the government to work with us, but it didn’t. So we had no choice.

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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