Meeting with a Warlord

Ismail Khan is widely known as the warlord of Western Afghanistan. A former Jihadi fighter, he once controlled Herat and the surrounding provinces. He was then imprisoned by the Taliban, escaped, flew to Iran, and was eventually appointed governor of Herat after the US-led intervention. Since 2005, he is the Minister of Water and Energy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This is the story of when I met with Ismail Khan.

On March 19th 2011, I flew from Kabul to Herat just to meet with Ismail Khan. After weeks of postponing our interview, he had finally agreed to talk to me. Of course it had to be the very next day. And it had to be in Herat. I thus bought a plane ticket (not without difficulties); made sure my interpreter could take a day off from work; flew to Herat; dropped my suitcase at the hotel and went straight to his house. Or shall I say his palace. Ismail Khan’s house in Herat is indeed a 3 story high white marble palace. Everything in it is made of white marble: the walls, the forecourt, the floor, the staircase… Literally everything!

One of his assistant welcomed us and had us sit in one of the reception rooms. He offered us tea, raisins and other Afghan delicacies, as Afghan hospitality dictates. Of course we were not alone in the room. It is not the way it works in Afghanistan. Socially important people and leaders always have some sort of a court. People are either there for a specific reason, or they are simply attending (advisers, religious leaders, poets, etc.). Only 5 to 10 people were there with us, waiting for Ismail Khan to show up. As a foreigner, I was given the best seat, the one next to the “Amir” as he likes to call himself. As far as I remember, we did not have to wait for very long. Just enough time for a cup of tea, some pistachios and there he was, greeting everyone and cracking jokes.

Ismail Khan is the most impressive individual I have ever seen. His overall appearance is not especially imposing though. He is a short old man with a long white beard, who wears traditional outfits. I had previously met with loads of important Afghan figures and seen hundreds of pictures of him. I really thought I was well-prepared. I was wrong. There is something very distinctive about Ismail Khan. He has a very unique way of looking into someone’s eyes. His tiny half-closed eyes seem to see right through your soul: threatening black eyes that exude intelligence and power.

Our interview was very fruitful. Of course, here is not the place to write about what he said, did not say, or did not want to say. But in all honesty, I have to admit that I was surprised by how instructive our conversation was. Paradoxically it was also very pleasant and uncomfortable at the same time. Ismail Khan is a very witty individual who likes asking questions (although I was the one looking for answers). He for example asked what my favorite place in Herat was. Caught by surprise, and knowing how serious Ismail Khan is about religion, I thought that talking about Herat’s magnificent mosque was a smart move. Wrong again! That answer did not please him at all. Purposely ignoring me, Ismail Khan started to talk to my interpreter alone and asked him if I knew about the Jihad museum that he had built (as a tribute to his own courage and splendor). Unfortunately I did know about the museum. My interpreter and I actually went there a week earlier, during my last trip to Herat. But it totally slipped my mind. Of course that was the right answer! I think Ismail Khan was testing me, trying to shake me up a little. As I said, he is a very witty individual.

Later in the interview he just stopped answering my questions altogether. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore” he said. Unfortunately our interview got interrupted by prayer time, but, eager to show me the remnants of his power, he invited to a Jihadi commanders’ gathering he had organized the very next day. I was finally in luck!

The commanders’ gathering was an amazing experience. My interpreter and I arrived at Ismail Khan’s house at 11 AM the next day. He was running a little late so we decided to take some pictures and check out Ismail Khan’s private zoo. Seeing ostriches, peacocks and dears running around was really unexpected. More interesting was to witness twenty or so men getting ready for the Amir’s arrival and fixing everything before the celebrations. When Ismail Khan finally arrived, and after he greeted us, we were asked to jump in a black 4 by 4 with four other people. He sat in his own car. Racing through the city with a police escort, it took us about 45 minutes to reach the nearby district where the celebrations were taking place. There, Ismail Khan was greeted like the prince he believes he is. He took us an incredible amount of time to walk the 500 meters that separated the parking lot from the place where the stage was. He had to shake hands, pose for pictures, and make sure he did not disappoint anyone. Once we finally arrived at the stage, we listened to prayers and poems, followed by an hour of speeches, including Ismail Khan’s one, unanimously acclaimed. Once again, it is not the place to write what the speech was about, but it was extremely instructive for my research. Like the lord he is, he then invited the hundreds of participants for food that he had paid for, sat with the rest of us, ate the food and left.

It was just another day in the life of an Afghan warlord.

About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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6 Responses to Meeting with a Warlord

  1. OMG Romain, this is exciting! Thanks for the sharing the details about your visit to Ismail Khan with us. I would love to know what he said during the interview and in his speech to the public, and also your interpretation of how it fits within what is known about the power equations in that region. Do we have to wait for your dissertation for that?

    • Afghanopoly says:

      I’m afraid you do have to wait. Maybe I’ll get some sort of case study published before that. Inshallah!

      • That is fine, as I am sure that I would have liked to read your dissertation in any case. On a side note, I found it cute that you seem to have picked up on saying “Inshallah” during your stay in Afghanistan.

      • afghanclass says:

        I didn’t realize how closely Afghanopoly was able to get to the key actors, in Afghanistan. I’m sure his interactions and former relations with persons having key roles and having legitimate insight into the social and political dynamics in Afghanistan have lended to Afghanopoly a certain sense of credibility. I’ll be listening more carefully to his insight and feedback during these blogs, as I know he has extensive knowledge and should spark lively debates.

  2. Médéric says:

    hey buddy !
    exciting story indeed!
    Et le phd,il est fini?

  3. the lost flaneur says:

    You should have met Ismail Khan between 1992-1995 in Herat when he took power after the communists. Then he was jailed by Taliban for a couple of years and Iran paid for his freedom. Back then he was a blood-sucking vampire, the prison “reformed” him.

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