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Profile: Afghanistan's Ismail Khan - 2002-05-10

As Afghanistan prepares for the grand national council that is to establish a transitional government, eyes are on one of several regional strongmen whose support is viewed as essential to the success of the meeting. One of these regional leaders is the governor of the western province of Herat, Mohammed Ismail Khan.

It is the middle of the day in the village of Islam Qala on the Afghan border with Iran. Most of the town's population has been standing for several hours in the sun. The road from the border post is blocked and traffic is backed up for hundreds of meters. A luxury, all-terrain vehicle with tinted windows rolls slowly into view and the crowd leaps to its feet.

The people run alongside the car shouting the Mujahideen war cry, "Allah-u-Akbar," God is great. The car and its convoy stop beside the village mosque and the crowd presses in to see. A small but imposing man with a white turban and flowing white beard steps out of the car to wild cheers.

The town is receiving Mohammed Ismail Khan, governor of Herat Province, legendary war hero, religious leader and self-styled Amir, or absolute ruler, of western Afghanistan. Such tours in the countryside are a regular part of the governor's routine since he re-took power in Herat after the fall of the Taliban last September.

Charismatic and independent, Governor Ismail Khan is both feared and admired. In Herat and parts of the neighboring provinces, his power is uncontested. And his support is viewed as essential to the success of next month's Loya Jirga that will choose a transitional government for Afghanistan. During a late-night interview the following evening, Governor Ismail Khan outlines his vision for Afghanistan.

The governor says he supports the Loya Jirga. He pledges that his region will participate in it and he prays for its success. This represents a change from his initial doubt over the process that is aimed at bringing Afghanistan's warring factions into a democratically elected government.

The governor says he hopes the future government will be chosen on the basis of competence and not ethnic groups that have caused much of the strife in his country. Nevertheless, he says military commanders who for decades fought over Afghanistan will probably be members of the transitional government.

Asked if he will support the results of the Loya Jirga, no matter what the outcome, Governor Ismail Khan says only that he will support any leader chosen by the majority of the people.

Longtime observers call Mr. Ismail Khan a survivor. Born 56-years ago into an ethnic Tajik family in the western town of Shindand near the Iranian border, Mr. Ismail Khan entered the armed forces at an early age. He quickly made his first mark in Afghan history by leading an uprising in 1979 against occupying Soviet forces. The rebellion reportedly caused hundreds of Soviet deaths, but also led to a crackdown in which thousands of Afghans were killed.

After the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Kabul in 1992, Mr. Ismail Khan installed himself as the Amir of Herat. He was praised for establishing order and rebuilding the war-devastated region.

He remained in power for two years, until the Taliban drove him out of Afghanistan in 1995 and into Iran. As part of a deal, a rival general turned Mr. Ismail Khan over to the Taleban in 1997. But after more than a year in prison, he escaped, further burnishing his legendary status.

Following the defeat of the Taleban last year, Mr. Ismail Khan returned to power in Herat. Since then, he has been credited with restoring peace and security in the region and with bringing a measure of prosperity to its inhabitants.

Critics accuse the governor of being harsh on political opponents, of amassing wealth through taxes on imports and smuggling, and of maintaining overly close ties to Iran. But others characterize him as a benevolent dictator, who has fostered stability and good governance, who listens to his people and spreads some of the wealth to the less fortunate.

Governor Ismail Khan has expressed no public desire for a national leadership role. Observers say he appears content with his position as regional strongman and a national powerbroker, who must be accommodated by any government in Kabul. Nevertheless, they are quick to note that, like anything in Afghan politics, this could quickly change.