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Democracy is Not a Postcard

ISSUE:  Winter 2008
Democracy is Not a Postcard: Iranian Influence in Western Afghanistan


I took the elevator up. Afghanistan doesn’t have many elevators—after years of war with the Soviet Union followed by more than a decade of Taliban control, most of the country remains in shambles, leading one American pilot during the invasion to lament that Afghanistan was “not a target-rich environment”—but the Herat Trade Center is a flashy, modern structure with eight stories of blue, shimmering, mirrored glass. Qulam Qader Akbar, head of the Herat Chamber of Commerce, wore a pinstriped suit and had slicked-back hair. The window in his second-floor office frames Herat’s skyline of palaces and minarets.

From here, it’s obvious: Herat, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, is booming. Pastel-colored mansions—narco-palaces courtesy of the poppy trade—shoot up on every block, featuring turrets and multi-tiered balconies in a decorating style somewhere between a lollypop and a wedding cake. Women in burqas browse through piles of bras and sacks of spices in the crowded streets and alleys of the bazaar. At a traffic circle, orderly cars inch around a tower honoring those who died fighting the Soviets during the 1980s. An inscription in Dari at the top reads, jihad: victory, independence, development. While many jihadis live in caves and dwell on victory and independence, the people of Herat are busy enjoying the benefits of development.

Herat’s nacro-palaces feature a decorating style somewhere between a lollypop and a wedding cake.

Akbar leaned back in his leather chair and explained why. “Location, location, location,” he said. Herat shares a border with Iran, and more goods already pass through Islam Qala, the primary crossing point, than through any other border station in Afghanistan. In past centuries, traders flocked to swap camels; now they come to buy Land Cruisers. But it’s not just proximity that has led to Herat’s prosperity; the Iranian government is actively investing in the province’s infrastructure. A recently completed road from Herat to Islam Qala was built by an Iranian construction company; there are also plans to extend the Iranian railway to Herat—a project that would ultimately link the city to markets in Europe. And while Kabul hums with the sound of generators day and night, electricity flows twenty-four hours a day in Herat thanks to its energy-rich neighbors, Iran and Turkmenistan. The Iranian power grid runs straight across the border and plugs directly into Herat’s industrial park. Reliable energy and cheap transportation, combined with an educated citizenry and the fall of the Taliban, have fueled an economic boom. Akbar told me that there were just one or two companies based in Herat during the Taliban era. Today, there are more than 250.

Until recently, Washington and Tehran had struck something like a cordial, working relationship in Herat. The Iranians were grateful that the Taliban, with whom they almost went to war, had been defeated, and many of the anti-Taliban warlords in the Northern Alliance supported by the Americans were already being bankrolled by the Iranian government. The first few years of the American venture in Afghanistan gave the impression that Iran and the United States might be able to play nice. Strange friendships develop in wartime.

But last spring, a series of events gave reason to reconsider. In April, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, told the Iranians that he knew they were shipping weapons to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan—and to cut it out. This may have been dismissed as just another sound bite of anti-Iranian rhetoric from Washington, but a couple of months later, Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, the commander of the Afghan Border Police, lodged similar claims. “The weapons which the enemies use these days such as Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, hand grenades, explosives—they are not coming from the sky, these definitely are coming from across the border,” he told the BBC.

A few weeks later, primed to respond to American threats and provocations, Iran revealed an unconventional weapon in its arsenal: refugees. In late April, the government packed more than 100,000 displaced Afghans onto buses and sent them back across the border. Nader Naderi, spokesman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the Afghan government had little forewarning and insufficient time to prepare for the human flood. “It was very close to being a humanitarian disaster,” he told me. “The move meant to strain the international community working in Afghanistan. The Iranians could say, ‘Look, after six years, the United States, NATO, and the UN still can’t provide a safe environment for these Afghan refugees to return home.’ And they couldn’t make this point unless they deported mass numbers of people.”

Crowded Market
Women in burqas browse through piles of bras and sacks of spices in the crowded streets and alleys of Herat’s bazaar.

Between the refugees and the claims of weapons shipments to the Taliban, on the one hand, and the stream of good news coming from Herat, on the other, I asked myself: Why would the Shia Iranians be arming the Sunni Taliban, most of whom consider Shiites to be heretics? Keeping in mind the tension between Iran and the United States, why weren’t the Iranians doing even more? After all, if the Iranians invaded and occupied Mexico, wouldn’t the US government be training and arming insurgents? Was it really possible that the Iranians could be building Herat into a model city and sending armor-piercing mines to the Taliban? Who had most influence in Herat these days: Kabul, Washington, or Tehran?

The fourth policeman crawled onto the bed of our Ford Ranger pickup, wrapped a scarf around his face, and cradled his rocket-propelled grenade launcher between his legs. Then we set off toward the Iranian border. Second Lieutenant Khan Wali Miakhel sat in the front seat. Javed, a twenty-eight-year-old unemployed-doctor-turned-translator, sat beside me in the back of the Ranger’s extended cab.

Miakhel, also twenty-eight, was tall, thin, and had greasy hair. Earlier in the summer, he had spent two weeks in Kansas for a training course, and he wore a pin on the lapel of his uniform that showed American and Afghan flags joined together. He had graduated from the police academy, but, even as an officer, his salary barely exceeded fifty dollars a month. When Miakhel got leave time every three months, he had to call his parents and ask for money to buy a plane ticket so he could visit his wife and five children in Jalalabad, on the opposite side of the country. Being a policeman in Afghanistan comes with no glamorous incentives: the Taliban shoot at you and the pay stinks.

The Ranger sped along the smooth, Iranian-built asphalt road leading to the border. Electric towers paralleled our route and disappeared into the desert. Sand dunes piled against walls, street signs, and parked cars. When the wind gusted, the sand blowing against the Ranger sounded like shards of metal. A range of brown, bald mountains flanked the road on one side, an abandoned refugee camp on the other. When the Taliban fell, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran came home. Many settled in mud-hut villages on the outskirts of Herat. When the chance came to leave the camp, they took everything valuable: wellheads, doors, windows—anything not made of mud. In the years since, the roofs and walls have caved in from the harsh winds and rains in the open desert. The remains looked like ancient ruins.

Nearing the rendezvous point in Islam Qala, where we had arranged to join another five Ranger pickups before proceeding to the border, I asked Miakhel if he had observed anything that suggested the Iranians were aiding the insurgency.

“Mines,” he said with a nod. He described the kind of land mine, now common in Iraq, that fires a projectile able to pierce tank armor before detonating. These mines have killed scores of American and British soldiers in Iraq, and are now appearing in Afghanistan. “It was the first time I had seen such mines,” Miakhel told me. “There was an abbreviation etched on the back of them, and the initials stood for an Iranian militia.”

Days earlier, I had sat in the office of Miakhel’s boss, Colonel Safi, the border police commander who first implied that Iran was running a network of training camps for Afghan fighters and supplying the insurgents with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Safi sprawled in a cushioned chair, his legs spread on either side of a tiny, glass-topped end table that he used as desk. Crowded on the table were two mobile phones, an ashtray, a cup of tea, a pack of cigarettes, a platter filled with pistachios and pumpkin seeds, a doorbell-like buzzer connected to the kitchen and the waiting room, and scatterings of pistachio shells and cigarette ash.

His thick black mustache looked like a caterpillar. (During the Taliban regime, Safi told me, he fled to Pakistan because he didn’t want to shave his mustache and grow a beard.) He admitted that he had recently gotten a phone call from Kabul, an official from the Ministry of Interior. The official told Safi that there was a spokesman in the ministry responsible for statements about security matters. Safi took the hint. Other government officials had lost their jobs for making tamer statements against Iran in the press—but I had to ask.

“These training camps … ,” I started.

“This is not just something that I know,” Safi interrupted. “Everybody knows this. All government officials in Afghanistan know that Iran has training camps and has helped particular groups of people.”

“What kinds of people? Fellow Shiites? Taliban?”

“Everyone,” he said. “Not just Hazaras”—Afghanistan’s Shiite minority—“and not just the Taliban. But I can’t blame Iran. I blame the Afghans who are being used by the Iranians. These are the people who are most guilty of killing other Afghans. Every government naturally wants to take advantage of another country’s weaknesses. If they can be successful, I say: ‘Well done!’”

Safi peeled a pistachio shell. “But every person who digs a grave for another person should remember that, one day, he will also be put in a grave.”

He reached under the glass-topped end table and held up a yellow GPS device. “I don’t know exactly where these training camps are now, but if I can find a way to prove the location of these camps, then I will tell the entire world about them,” he said, waving the device in the air. “I have already told some people who work for me to try to locate the camps in Iran.”

“Does that mean you have a team of spies running around Iran?”

“Of course. This is the duty of the Afghan people to find this out,” he answered. His tone was urgent. “Where are these camps?”

At the rendezvous point, three motorcycles and five Ranger pickups fell in behind us and we convoyed toward the border. We drove for nearly two hours, zigzagging through melon fields and past rows of droopy-headed sunflowers. Then Miakhel pointed toward a watchtower. “Iran,” he said. As well as the watchtower on the horizon, white, chest-high obelisks rose every few hundred meters, marking the border. On the Iranian side stood a tall, chain-link fence, behind which lay a strip of paved road for Iranian border-police vehicles. We drove over shrubs and through tracts of loose sand that sucked at the tires and forced the back end of the truck to slide. A mini-tornado blew across the plain. It looked like a raised cobra, chest puffed, powering towards its prey.

Uniformed Man
Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Zaman at the Afghanistan-Iran border. Behind him, border police peer through binoculars at their Iranian counterparts across the desert.

Eventually, the Chah Khargah border post, a high-walled fortress, appeared on a hill. The fort looked over a valley toward a brown, rugged ridgeline, where a single white obelisk demarcated the border. Sixty-seven border posts dot the Afghanistan–Iran border; the Iranian government built fourteen of them in the last few years, including Chah Khargah, as a result of the Bonn Agreement of 2001.

When our convoy rolled up to the gate, gunmen leapt from the backs of the trucks and took up positions behind rocks, as if they were under assault. Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Zaman, a broad-chested man in his forties, was the senior-most officer. He gestured toward the two dozen men that had fanned out and formed a defensive perimeter around the fort. “That’s to show you our level of training,” he said. Zaman then reviewed the lineup of young border guards, their bodies erect, chins pointed to the sky. “At ease,” said Zaman, and their bodies went limp. They flashed goofy smiles and kidded with one another.

I nodded in the direction of a peach-fuzzed guard. “How old is he?”

Zaman said that, according to government regulations, the minimum age is eighteen to join the police. “So that must be his age.” Peach Fuzz smiled and shrugged.

Zaman pointed across the valley at one of the Iranian border posts. He chuckled. “They are definitely wondering what is going on over here,” he said. On the roof of the Iranian base, we saw the silhouettes of two men. Zaman said it wasn’t every day that a foreigner, six Rangers, three motorbikes, and a few dozen guards came calling. One of the Afghan guards lowered a pair of binoculars and said, “They are looking through binoculars back at us.”

I asked Zaman if any of his men had seen any action: shootouts with smugglers or Taliban. One man raised his hand. His name was Abdul Qadoos; he too was twenty-eight and had a beard. “Three months ago, we were patrolling one night in a Ranger a little south of Chah Khargah. We spotted a smuggler coming across the border on a motorbike.” (Qadoos said they later discovered that the man was smuggling crystallized heroin.) “We yelled for him to stop, but he only sped up and tried to get away. When we yelled again, he fired at the Ranger. So I shot him.”

“Did you kill him?” I asked.


“Was that the first time you had killed someone?”

“That was the first time I killed a smuggler,” Qadoos said, smirking. “But I have killed lots of Taliban.”


For centuries, Afghanistan and Iran enjoyed cultural, linguistic, and commercial bonds. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, eastern Iran and western Afghanistan formed a single entity known as Khorasan. (Khorasan remains the name of a province in present-day Iran. And in al Qaeda’s constant bid for nostalgic appeal, the terrorist outfit refers to its struggle in Afghanistan as “Jihad in Khorasan.”) Herat was one of the major cities in ancient Khorasan, and its proximity to the Hari Rud river made it ideal for trading (and transporting) horses, camels, and fruits. The trade brought cultural cross-pollination too. Heratis speak a dialect of Persian that is closer to the Farsi spoken in Tehran than the Dari spoken in Kabul.

But Heratis are also adamant about not being confused with Iranians. In Islam Qala, I spent an afternoon listening to locals scorn the Iranians for, as they explained, “doing nothing more than killing Afghans.” One man pulled a flier off the front door of his shop. It showed the faces of four young boys from Islam Qala, recently killed by the Iranian border guards. The shopkeeper said the boys had only crossed the border to pick watermelons, but they were captured and tortured by Iranian soldiers. “This is not a recent thing,” the man said. “It’s been happening for twenty years.” In fact, it’s been happening for centuries.

In 1837, the Shah of Persia marched an army into Herat and besieged the city. Farmers outside of Herat burned their crops before the invading army could get to them. Seven months into the siege, the Heratis were running low on food, water, and gunpowder. To survive, they began eating their horses. Sensing weakness, the Shah issued a proposal: accept Persian suzerainty and we will lift the siege. The Afghans replied, “Never!” and the standoff continued. Finally, ten months after the Persians first entered Herat, they withdrew their army when the British threatened to intervene. Against all odds, the people of Herat had repelled their Persian neighbors.

Given their history of resistance, it’s not surprising that Herat was also one of the first cities to revolt against Kabul’s communist government in 1979. Ismail Khan, a Sunni Tajik who was a young Afghan army captain at the time, led the uprising. He butchered more than a dozen Russian military advisors, along with their wives and children. Khan and his men impaled the dead and displayed their distended corpses around the city. The communist regime responded by bombing the city, nonstop, for twenty-four hours. More than 20,000 people died in the government’s bloody retaliation. But Ismail Khan escaped a hero.

During the jihad, Khan’s talents as a military commander earned him respect and popularity. When the mujahideen government took over Kabul in 1992, Khan became governor of Herat Province. Later, the Taliban captured him and threw him into Mullah Omar’s jail. According to urban legend, Khan escaped from the Taliban jail. But one of his aides admitted to me that Khan paid $50,000 to one of the Taliban to be released. Upon his release, Khan went to Iran, where he stayed until the Taliban were toppled. In November 2001, Khan returned from Iran with his private army and was welcomed like a king. With the Taliban gone, the elders and religious leaders of Herat gathered at the city’s Friday mosque to choose a new governor. Khan soon dubbed himself “Amir of the West.”

Khan could be considered the father of modern Herat. The city’s post-Taliban flowering began under his watch, and its stability and relative security are, many say, a product of his iron fist. His style of ruling was personal and dictatorial. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both criticized his human rights record. Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, the head of the Council of Professionals, said that Khan’s goons beat him one night just for questioning Khan’s deputy at a town meeting. Shahir told me, “They dragged me out of my home at 10 p.m., put me in handcuffs, and blindfolded me. I thought they were going to kill me.” He pointed to bruises on his body where they prodded him with the end of a rifle barrel. Another victim told Human Rights Watch that for Khan and his gang, “killing a bird is the same as killing a man.”

But Hajji Abdul Baqi, the head of the Transportation Department under Khan and one of his close aides, described Khan’s way of governing as a “people’s style.” Baqi explained, “Three or four nights a week, Amir Sahib himself patrolled the streets. If people had a problem, they went right up to him and told him. Sometimes he went in a car, sometimes on horseback, sometimes even on a motorcycle. It made the people feel safe.”

While Hamid Karzai and the Americans certainly appreciated Khan’s control over Herat, the Americans were none too keen on what they perceived as Khan’s close relations with Iran. In September 2004, he was sacked as governor. The news sparked riots in Herat. Khan’s supporters ripped down portraits of Karzai, whose own supporters, in turn, ripped down portraits of Khan. Khan eventually conceded the post and moved to Kabul, where he became Minister for Water and Power. He lost his fiefdom, and Herat lost its dictator. Today, robberies and thefts in Herat are on the rise. Businessmen’s kids are kidnapped for ransom. And while the Taliban has yet to fully take root, disparate groups of antigovernment insurgents have made traveling outside of Herat’s city limits increasingly dangerous.

Humayun Azizi, who heads Herat’s Provincial Council, told me that Ismail Khan “didn’t permit any violence and wouldn’t let anyone disobey his commands.” He continued, “There was no democracy here. Now there is democracy, and this is why it is difficult to control. The press is free and people speak their minds. This democracy is something you brought.”

Azizi’s tone sounded strangely incriminating. I asked him if democracy in Afghanistan was a good or a bad thing. “It’s bad. Democracy is not a postcard that you can send from the United States to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The present governor of Herat, Sayed Hussain Anwari, is a Shia Hazara. His appointment marked a first for Sunni-dominated Herat, a province with no indigenous Hazara population, and many local Sunnis accused Anwari of working at the behest of Iran and giving the Hazaras plots of real estate and weapons. They alleged that there was an Iranian conspiracy afoot to settle Herat with large numbers of Hazaras in order to create a “Shia buffer” near the border.

Jibrael is the largest Hazara-dominated sharak, or suburb, on the outskirts of Herat. It has paved roads, regular bus service, and uninterrupted electricity. Locals told me that these amenities came to Jibrael only after Anwari became governor. Since most communities outside the major cities are lucky to have running water, people wanted to know why Jibrael got such preferential treatment. Javed and I drove there one afternoon. On the way, Javed articulated his own suspicions. “The Hazaras have always been the laborers of this country. They are the workhorses. Then they went to Iran for so many years. When they came back, they had money to build all these new homes. Where did they get this money from?” Javed, and many others, believed that the Iranian government was helping out. When I suggested that perhaps the Hazaras had simply saved their money, he waved me off.

Javed may have good reason to be skeptical. Nahik Fallah, the head of the Department for Martyrs and Disabled under Anwari, claimed to have evidence of the governor’s role in a conspiracy to settle Hazaras. He explained that his duty under Anwari was to distribute “martyr’s cards” to women who lost their husbands or sons during the jihad. Normally, cards are handed out to people in their province of birth because, said Fallah, “it confirms that you are a citizen of that province.” Yet Anwari directed Fallah to give the cards to those displaced Hazaras who had recently moved to Herat. (Fallah refused and was fired.) What did the cards have to do with the growth of Jibrael? “Twenty percent of the municipality’s lands are reserved for the families of martyrs. So all of these people received a piece of land from the government,” Fallah explained. He estimated that Jibrael has grown “about twenty times” since the fall of the Taliban. “Iran wants power in the border areas. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been distributed to the Hazaras.”

In Jibrael, Javed steered through a bazaar lined by wooden carts piled high with eggplants, tomatoes, and garlic. We passed elderly Hazara: wispy-bearded men and clusters of women wearing Iranian-style chadors. We visited a large library, funded by a bonyad, or religious foundation, based in Qom, Iran. Naim Khalili, a library employee, told me that 98 percent of the books came from across the border.

Smiling Man
A Hazara man standing in the streets of Jibrael.

Javed parked beside a bakery, where a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini hung on the wall. Ali Iftikhar crouched out front, rolling a pair of stones in his right hand. Built like a bank safe, Iftikhar had a square head, a burglar’s flattop, and a flat nose and cheeks. He was forty-four. After a childhood in Bamiyan, a Hazara region in the center of Afghanistan, he fled to Iran during the jihad. He returned to Afghanistan in the 1990s, but when rumors spread that the Taliban were planning a pogrom against the Hazaras, Iftikhar jetted back across the border. He was fortunate, because in early 1999, the Taliban rounded up Hazaras and hung them from lampposts around the city, sometimes by their necks and sometimes by their feet. Nowadays, according to Iftikhar, “There are no problems for Hazaras in Herat.”

A bus, filled with laborers back after a day of work in the city, squealed to a halt behind us. Minutes later, a pack of women stepped off another bus. Jibrael felt peaceful. I asked Iftikhar if the Iranian government had helped build Jibrael. “Iran has definitely had some effect here,” he responded. “We can’t pretend that they haven’t helped us.”

Javed and I arrived at Ismail Khan’s house at 8 a.m. His militiamen, heads wrapped in their signature black-and-white turbans, paced the perimeter of the compound. Parked out front were two Ford Rangers belonging to the Afghan National Police. Outside a tall gate a line of women in burqas sat on the ground. We walked up to the gate, and I rang the bell. An eyeball assessed us through the peephole. The gate rolled open. Baqi, Khan’s aide, stood on the other side, holding a walkie-talkie.

Every few months, Khan returns from his post in the Ministry for Water and Power in Kabul, but Baqi had already warned me that “Amir Sahib’s” schedule was hectic when he came home because so many people wanted to see him. “People really love him,” said Baqi. “He starts meeting people at 7 a.m., and they line up to see him until midnight.” In his basement, Baqi had shown me a mirror with a stenciled black silhouette of Khan’s face. “That is the man who spent five years in a Taliban jail,” he said admiringly, “and then freed this city of Taliban rule.”

Now Baqi escorted us through Khan’s landscaped garden, which spread over fourteen acres in the center of Herat. We ducked under trellises and slipped past rosebushes. The Herat Trade Center loomed nearby. (Khan reportedly tried to halt construction of the Trade Center when he realized it would look into his garden.) Baqi led us into a marble-floored sunroom overgrown with trees, vines crawling up its walls.

After half an hour, Khan entered wearing a long, purple-and-green-striped cape. He moved cautiously and his voice trembled. Khan is only sixty, but you could easily mistake him for fifteen years older. He wears his white Brillo-beard in fundamentalist fashion, with his upper lip trimmed close. He thumbed yellow prayer beads and wore a white prayer cap. His eyes remained slit and intent, framed by black, arching eyebrows.

I asked if he could share his secret to keeping the peace in Herat. Khan cracked a sly smile. “When there is trust, when the rulers satisfy the people and the people are confident in the government, there will always be stability and security.” And is there trust now? “I am sad to say that the current governor, Mr. Anwari, doesn’t know the people, and he doesn’t know Herat city. So the people don’t want to help him or his government.”

“But doesn’t Anwari have a growing base of support from the Hazaras?” I asked.

“After the piruzi”—which means “the glorious revolution” and refers to when Khan took over after the fall of the Taliban—“many Hazara refugees returned to Afghanistan,” Khan said. “My government had a policy of sending them back to the provinces where they originally came from, because I don’t like congested cities and I don’t like unemployment in my areas. But obviously Governor Anwari didn’t agree with my policy.”

“People also say that Anwari is an Iranian agent and has opened the door to Iranian influence in Herat,” I said. “Who has more influence here these days, Iran or the United States?”

Bearded Man
Ismail Khan, the “Amir of the West,” surrounded by supporters at his home this summer.

Khan’s left eyebrow arched in the shape of an upside-down V. “Neither one of them has much influence. There is an impression that Iran and America are fighting for influence in Herat. The Iranians have spent $500 million. What can they show for it? Only a road to Islam Qala.

“We want them to compete for influence here,” he continued. “We have a university that needs repairs, but neither Iran nor America has offered to pay for that. And Herat, despite being the second-largest city in Afghanistan, has no international airport.” If Iran or America wants influence in Herat, he said, “let one of them build a new airport for us.”

Baqi, standing across the sunroom, signaled that the interview was over. Khan rose from his chair, readjusted his cape, and stepped outside.

A crowd waited for him. Grown men clutched his hand, bent their heads, kissed “the amir.” Khan’s turbaned guards stayed close. Baqi communicated on the walkie-talkie. The women in burqas had made their way inside the compound; Khan stopped to greet them, too. Javed leaned over and whispered to me, “Almost everyone here has gotten some favor from Ismail Khan and they are here to thank him.” Javed reminded me that Baqi ran a one-truck transportation company before Khan named him head of the Transportation Department in Herat. Now he owns a fleet of trucks and has a big house.

Eventually, Khan made his way to a jet black Land Cruiser and lifted himself into the backseat. The tall metal gate rolled open. More Ranger pickups had arrived. Turbaned guards scanned the mass of people gathered around his Land Cruiser. Baqi, his walkie-talkie glued to his lips, jumped into the front seat of Khan’s vehicle. It pulled through the gate, trailed by a caravan of other Land Cruisers, Rangers, and beat-up pickup trucks ferrying Khan’s militiamen.

The metal gate rolled shut. Khan rode off in a flurry of sirens and horns. It took almost half an hour for the traffic in his otherwise quiet neighborhood to return to normal.


Farooq Hussaini, a Sunni Muslim, runs a mosque and madrassa in the center of Herat. On the morning we met there, the madrassa complex was under construction, and the sound of banging sledgehammers echoed and filled the empty prayer hall where we sat. Hussaini has large, bulging eyes, and wears tinted glasses, which he peered over while he spoke. He rubbed a string of lime green prayer beads. A handful of similar strings, for visitors, hung on a hook behind his head. Sunnis and Shias never used to fight in Herat, he told me, but Anwari’s governorship and the growing Hazara population changed the religious demography—and culture—of the city. If anyone doubted this, the Ashura festival in January and February 2006 proved it.

Robed Man
Farooq Hussaini, middle, exhorts people to launch a cultural jihad against the Americans in Afghanistan.

Every year, on the tenth day of Muharram, the Shia commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn, by marching the streets, whipping themselves with chains, and chanting paeans to Husayn and the Prophet’s family members. In places where Shiites constitute a majority—such as Iran, southern Iraq, and Lebanon—the Ashura “festivities” are elaborate and bloody. According to hard-core Sunnis, Ashura brings out the worst of the Shia. They say that the Shia insult Husayn’s rivals, many of whom happen to be revered by Sunnis. This aggrieves the Sunnis and often leads to violence—as evinced by the bombings and clashes on Ashura in Iraq and Pakistan in years past.

The Shia of Herat typically observed Ashura in a modest, subdued way. But in 2006, they went all out. “In Iran, it’s one thing,” Hussaini said, referring to the Shia tradition of marching and self-flagellating. “Iran is a Shia country. But in Afghanistan, we cannot tolerate this. Last year’s Ashura proved, 100 percent, that Iran is controlling events in Herat. The arrangements for the ceremony were done by the Iranian government.” Hussaini had just delivered a speech inside Herat’s Friday Mosque when the clashes began. “And I was the first person to publicly accuse Iran.” He almost sounded like he was bragging, proud that his accusation had landed him in jail on the first day of violence.

Nahik Fallah, Anwari’s former aide, substantiated Hussaini’s story. “The governor supported the Shia and gave them guns,” he said. “The Sunni fighters had no guns. Just bricks.” Eight days later, the sectarian street clashes were finally brought under control, but not before more than a hundred lay dead.

“This was the first war between Sunni and Shia in Herat’s history,” Fallah said. But the Ashura riots weren’t the first time Hussaini had locked horns with Shiites or Iran. In fact, he lived on the other side of the border for more than twenty years. Shortly after Ismail Khan’s rebellion in 1979, Hussaini’s father took his family to Iran, eventually settling in Ahvaz, an Arab- and Sunni-majority province in the southwest, near the Iraqi border. Hussaini’s father opened a Sunni madrassa and a local chapter of Khan’s Jamiat‑i-Islami party. When his father died in 1999, Hussaini, then twenty-four, took over. The Iranian government didn’t take well to Hussaini’s inflammatory speeches, and two years after his father’s death, intelligence agents came for Hussaini. “The Iranians and Shia people are always using bad language against ahle-Sunnat [Sunni] people,” he explained. “I defended the Prophet and his companions, and I was arrested.”

Still, Hussaini felt ambivalent about Iran. On the one hand, he described his years there as “the best of my life” and acknowledged that “the Iranian government helped us fight against the Soviet Union. We had a good jihad because of them.” But, on the other hand, he considered many Shiites heretics, and he railed against Iranian interference in Afghanistan.

I asked him whether he considered American or Iranian influence more of a threat to Afghanistan.

Hussaini smiled and leaned toward me. He peered over the top of his glasses. “I am not afraid of America. America is our enemy. They openly say, ‘I am your enemy’ and ‘I am against your religion.’ We are not afraid of America because they come out and say what they think. So we can face them,” he said. “But Iran is our secret enemy. Iran wears the clothes of Islam, but he hates us. He doesn’t like Islam. He pretends to be friends with all Muslims, but this is his game. Because of this, we are more afraid of Iran.”

The following Friday, Hussaini was due to address worshippers in Barnabad, a village two hours outside of Herat, and he invited Javed and me along. Seven of us—including our twentysomething driver, two middle-aged men, and Hussaini’s bodyguard (toting a Kalashnikov)—packed into a gray Land Cruiser. The gunman sat in the back row, next to a window that had been smashed in an accident. Before leaving town, Hussaini swabbed himself, and then me, with a perfume stick. We set off smelling fresh.

Maulvi Dawood is the imam of the central mosque in Barnabad—and Hussaini’s cousin—and he was the one who had invited Hussaini to deliver the Friday sermon. We stopped at Dawood’s home for tea before Hussaini led us winding through the sunbaked alleys of Barnabad. He wore a purple cloak and walked at a steady, unhurried pace. When we reached the mosque, Hussaini went straight to the microphone and began his sermon. Long-bearded village elders, hunched over their canes, eased in and sat against the back wall. Hussaini stood at the front, clasping his hands together over his stomach. “Yet another invader, America, has come to our country,” he said. “They are our enemy … and the young generation is unfortunately attracted to this enemy. Go into people’s homes, and you can see many tapes, CDs, and DVDs, but no one has CDs for learning Quran or interpreting the verses of Quran!”

Hussaini barked into the microphone. “We need to launch a cultural jihad against our new enemies. Russia attacked us with guns, but the Americans have assaulted our culture.” He paused and shook his head. “The media in Afghanistan makes me ashamed. They are broadcasting against Islam. Have you ever watched Tolo [Afghanistan’s top private tv channel] and heard them calling for the azan [call to prayer]?” He paused dramatically. “I didn’t think so. This is why today is also a jihad. Just as you struggled against Russia, struggle against the enemies in your country. We all want security, but defending our religion is more important!”

On the way home, Hussaini popped a recording of his speech into the Land Cruiser’s tape deck and we listened again. When we got to the section where Hussaini called for jihad against the Americans, the driver rewound the tape to replay it. Everyone in the car chuckled. Hussaini looked across the backseat at me and patted my hand. His smiling face represented yet another facet of the insurgency raging in Afghanistan. I knew that his militia was tiny, just one man with a Kalashnikov sitting beside the broken window, but his weekly speeches were motivating scores of young men to harden their resolve against the United States.

As we drove on, I let my eyes close and drifted into sleep. The cracking gunfire jolted me awake. I struggled to regain my bearings. Javed was holding his fingers in his ears and Hussaini was spun around in his seat. “What are you doing?” he demanded of his gunman. The guard looked up and down the rifle in disbelief. His finger, he said, barely brushed the trigger guard and the gun “just went off.” Lucky for all of us, the rifle was pointed out the smashed back window. Rather than ricocheting around the inside of the Land Cruiser, the bullet sped toward a village in the distance.

Back at his mosque in Herat, Hussaini apologized for the near miss. “It almost defeats the purpose of having a bodyguard,” he said. We bid one another farewell, and I was about to lean into the backseat of Javed’s car when Hussaini took my arm. He had one more thing to tell me. His face suddenly stony, his bulging eyes staring into mine. “Remember, the Russians came to Afghanistan once and we drove them out,” he said. “Tell the Americans that if they don’t leave soon, we will do the same thing to them.”

Herat is gradually coming to resemble the Taliban-infested provinces of the south— Helmand, Kandahar, Khost, all racked by violence. To be sure, deteriorating law and order since Ismail Khan’s dismissal has left some people longing for the strictures of the Taliban, but a major reason Farooq Hussaini’s anti-American sermons are catching on, sending people flocking to join the resistance, is the rising number of civilian casualties caused by American and NATO attacks. Afghan culture is based on honor and revenge; kill one man and you earn a family of enemies, for life.

In late April, around the time that refugees were streaming across the border from Iran, the American military bombed several villages in the Zerkoh Valley, a remote area in the Shindand District of southern Herat. An estimated one hundred people were killed. The Americans claimed that Taliban were holed up in Zerkoh; locals claimed that all of them were civilians, dozens of them women and children.

A couple of hours after the sun rose, Javed and I were coasting through the rolling hills of Adraskan District. We set out on the Ring Road for Shindand early in the morning to be sure that we were back in Herat before dusk, because in Farah Province, just south of the city of Shindand, the Taliban are known to patrol the road at night. The morning light was gentle, and shadows rested like pillows in the recesses of the hills. Herds of camels chewed on grass in meadows.

Gul Agha, tall and turbaned, waited for us at the side of the road. Agha had offered to take us to Shindand, another fifteen miles off the Ring Road on a bumpy dirt track. Born in Zerkoh himself, Agha said he could introduce us to Hajji Turjan, a Zerkoh resident who had witnessed the American bombing, but he was apprehensive about taking a foreigner into Shindand. In the days preceding our visit, the two dominant tribes had started killing each other. The tribal fighting, he said, created the kind of chaos that kidnappers relished, and only the day before, bandits had kidnapped four kids at gunpoint from the bazaar. This summer, the rumor was that the Taliban were willing to pay $50,000 for any foreign captive, and $20,000 for any Afghan working with a foreign organization.

Hajji Turjan opened the gate of the dried-mud wall that surrounded his house and waved us inside. He wore a white turban and had piercing brown eyes. His beard was wiry and streaked with gray, giving his face the look of an inverted Don King. Inside the house, he apologized that the fans weren’t spinning. “There is no electricity in Shindand,” he said. Just generators.

For fear of being targeted by rival tribesmen, Turjan had not left his house in four days. I asked if he felt any nostalgia for the relative security provided by the Taliban government. “I just want some government,” he said. “There is none right now. I don’t love or support the Taliban, but I love security. From the day the Americans came, the security has been getting worse and worse.” Then he told me about the day that American jets bombed his village.

Shortly after dawn prayers on April 27, Turjan was cultivating his poppy fields when a joint convoy of American and Afghan National Army troops rolled into Zerkoh. (“I don’t have much poppy, but it’s a way to gain a little extra money and have a better life,” he said.) According to Turjan, soldiers barged into homes, a gunfight broke out, and, three hours later, the bombing runs began. Turjan said the jets nearly scraped the tops of people’s homes. “The kids were screaming from the noise. I have never seen planes fly so close, even during the Soviet war,” he recalled. “We could see the bombs coming out from the planes before they exploded.”

Two days later, the bombing started again. More than one hundred people, all of them civilians, according to Turjan, were killed. He insisted that there were no Taliban in Zerkoh then, and there are no Taliban in Zerkoh now. But one thing had changed after the April bombing. “People hate the Americans now,” Turjan said. “I don’t deny that all hands are trying to work here—Taliban, al Qaeda, and Iran. But none of them have been successful.” Zerkoh was independent for centuries, why would the people suddenly want to be beholden to outsiders? Why would they want the risk of sheltering wanted people? “Seriously, we don’t want Shindand to be like the southern areas of Afghanistan,” he explained. Turjan’s eyes sunk. “But if the situation continues, I cannot promise that Zerkoh and Shindand won’t become a center for the Taliban.”

Turjan served us lunch. We pulled at hunks of fatty sheep’s meat with our hands and drank doogh, a chilled yogurt drink, with a ladle. Turjan paused from eating for a moment and said, “Look, if someone from the Taliban came to Zerkoh with a land mine and said, ‘I want to detonate this against a convoy of PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Teams, run by Spanish and Italian forces in Herat],’ the people in the village would say, ‘No.’ But if the same Taliban person said they wanted to target an American convoy, the local people would say, ‘Okay.’ People are so angry toward the Americans after they bombed all those villages.”

After leaving Turjan’s house, we stopped at the Shindand bazaar to buy cold sodas for the return trip. Javed and I fetched the drinks, while Gul Agha went to another store to buy a sack of flour and a cooking pot, and the driver stayed with the car. Five minutes later, we piled back into the car and shut the doors. The driver said a passerby warned him that he had about ten minutes to get out of town before someone tried to kidnap “the foreigner.” Agha said that the owner of the shop where he bought the cookware said the same thing. I slid low in the backseat and draped a turban over my head for the long drive back.

Published with the permission of the Institute of Current World Affairs.


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