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For the Pashto singer from Pakistan, see Ismail and Junaid.
Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan at the 2010 National Conference on Water Resources, Development and Management of Afghanistan
Born 1946 (1946)
Shindand, Herat Province, Afghanistan
Title Minister of Water and Energy
Predecessor Mullah Yaar Mohammad
Successor Sayed Mohammad Khairkhah
Religion Sunni Islam

Mohammad Ismail Khan (Persian: محمد اسماعیل خان‎) (born 1946) is a politician in Afghanistan, serving as Minister of Water and Energy since 2005. He was previously the Governor of Herat Province. He is widely known as a warlord because of his rise to power during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.[1] He controlled a large sized mujahideen force, mainly his fellow Tajiks from western Afghanistan. He is a key member of the political party Jamiat-e Islami and was a member of the now defunct United National Front party.[citation needed]

Early years and rise to power

Khan was born in or about 1946 in the Shindand District of Herat Province in Afghanistan. His family are Tajiks from the Chahar-Mahal neighbourhood of Shindand.

In early 1979 Ismail Khan was a Captain in the Afghan National Army based in the western city of Herat. In early March of that year, there was a protest in front of the Communist governor's palace against the arrests and assassinations being carried out in the countryside. The governor's troops opened fire on the demonstrators, who proceeded to storm the palace and hunt down Soviet advisers. The Herat garrison mutinied and joined the revolt, with Ismail Khan and other officers distributing all available weapons to the insurgents. Hundreds of civil workers and people not dressed in traditional Muslim clothes were murdered. A garrison of Soviet advisors was overtaken and all of its inhabitants: Soviet advisors along with their wives and children were massacred. The mob put severed heads of the victims on sticks and paraded them through the city of Herat. The government led by Nur Mohammed Taraki responded, pulverizing the city using Soviet supplied bombers and killing an estimated 24,000 citizens in less than a week.[2] This event marked the opening salvo of the rebellion which led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Ismail Khan escaped to the countryside where he began to assemble a local mujahideen rebel army.[3]

During the ensuing war, he became the leader of the western command of Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-e-Islami, political party associated with neighboring Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami. With Ahmad Shah Massoud, he was one of the most respected mujahideen leaders.[2] In 1992, two years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the mujahideen captured Herat and Ismail Khan became Governor.

Escaping to Iran

In 1995, he successfully defended his province against the Taliban, in cooperation with defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud. Khan even attacked the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, but was repulsed. Later, an ally of the Jamiat, Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum changed sides, and attacked Herat. Ismail Khan was forced to flee to neighboring Iran with 8,000 men and the Taliban took over Herat Province.

Two years later, while organising opposition to the Taliban in Faryab area, he was betrayed and captured by Abdul Majid Rouzi who had defected to the Taliban along with Abdul Malik Pahlawan, then one of Dostum's deputies.[2] Then in March 1999 he escaped from Kandahar prison. During the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, he fought against the Taliban within the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance) and thus regained his position as Governor of Herat.

Karzai administration and return to Afghanistan

After returning to Herat, Ismail Khan quickly consolidated his control over the region. He took over control of the city from the local ulema and quickly established control over the trade route between Herat and Iran, a large source of revenue.[4] As Emir of Herat, Ismail Khan exercised great autonomy, providing social welfare for Heratis, expanding his power into neighbouring provinces, and maintaining direct international contacts.[4] Although hated by the educated in Herat and often accused of human rights abuses, Ismail Khan's regime provided security, paid government employees, and made investments in public services.[4] However, during his tenure as Governor, Ismail Khan was accused of ruling his province like a private fiefdom, leading to increasing tensions with the Afghan Transitional Administration. In particular, he refused to pass on to the government the revenues gained from custom taxes on goods from Iran and Turkmenistan.

On 13 August 2003, President Karzai removed Governor Ismail Khan from his command of the 4th Corps. This was announced as part of a programme removing the ability of officials to hold both civilian and military posts.

Ismail Khan was ultimately removed from power in March 2004 due to pressure by neighbouring warlords and the central Afghan government. Various sources have presented different versions of the story, and the exact dynamics cannot be known with certainty. What is known is that Ismail Khan found himself at odds with a few regional commanders who, although theoretically his subordinates, attempted to remove him from power. Ismail Khan claims that these efforts began with a botched assassination attempt. Afterwards, these commanders moved their forces near Herat. Ismail Khan, unpopular with the Herati military class, was slow to mobilise his forces, perhaps waiting for the threat to Herat to become existential as a means to motivate his forces. However, the conflict was stopped with the intervention of International Security Assistance Force forces and soldiers of the Afghan National Army, freezing the conflict in its tracks. Ismail Khan's forces even fought skirmishes with the Afghan National Army, in which his son, Mirwais Sadiq was killed. Because Ismail Khan was contained by the Afghan National Army, the warlords who opposed him were quickly able to occupy strategic locations unopposed. Ismail Khan was forced to give up his governorship and to go to Kabul, where he served in Hamid Karzai's cabinet as the Minister of Energy.[5]

In 2005 Ismail Khan became the Minister of Water and Energy.

In late 2012, the Government of Afghanistan accused Ismail Khan of illegally distributing weapons to his supporters.[6] About 40 members of the country's Parliament requested Ismail Khan to answer their queries. The government believes that Khan is attempting to create some kind of disruption in the country.[1][7]

Assassination attempt

On September 27, 2009, Ismail Khan survived a suicide blast that killed 4 of his bodyguards in Herat, in western Afghanistan. He was driving to Herat Airport when a powerful explosion occurred on the way there. Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility and said the target was Khan.[8]

Testimony requested by a Guantanamo captive

Guantanamo captive Abdul Razzaq Hekmati requested Ismail Khan's testimony, when he was called before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal.[9] Ismail Khan, like Afghan Minister of Defense Rahim Wardak, was one of the high profile Afghans that those conducting the Tribunals ruled were "not reasonably available" to give a statement on a captive's behalf because they could not be located.

Hekmati had played a key role in helping Ismail Khan escape from the Taliban in 1999.[10] Hekmati stood accused of helping Taliban leaders escape from the custody of Hamid Karzai's government.

Carlotta Gall and Andy Worthington interviewed Ismail Khan for a new New York Times article after Hekmati died of cancer in Guantanamo.[10] According to the New York Times Ismail Khan said he personally buttonholed the American ambassador to tell him that Hekmati was innocent, and should be released. In contrast, Hekmati was told that the State Department had been unable to locate Khan.


Ismail Khan is a controversial figure. Reporters Without Borders has charged him with muzzling the press and ordering attacks on journalists.[11] Also Human Rights Watch has accused him of human rights abuses.[12] After the fall of the Taliban when Ismail Khan regained control of Herat, he established an Islamic police, who would beat anyone who was found drinking and then parade them through the city with their heads shaved.[citation needed]

Nevertheless, he remains a popular figure for some in Afghanistan. Unlike other mujahideen commanders, Khan has not been linked to large-scale massacres and atrocities such as those committed after the capture of Kabul in 1992.[2] Moreover, during his Governorship, Herat province has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, with Khan using the money drawn from customs revenues to repair much of the damage done by the Taliban. Following news of his dismissal, rioting broke out in the streets of Herat, and President Karzai had to ask him to make a personal appeal for calm.[13]

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 Afghan warlord's call to arms rattles officials
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Ismail Khan, Herat, and Iranian Influence by Thomas H. Johnson, Strategic Insights, Volume III, Issue 7 (July 2004)[1]
  3. Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. pg 40. 2004, Penguin Books.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Johnson, C. & Leslie, J. "Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace", New York: Zed Books, 2008. p47-69, 180. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mirage" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mirage" defined multiple times with different content
  5. Giustozzi, A. "Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan", London: Hurst & Co., 2009. p259.
  6. GRAHAM BOWLEY (November 12, 2012). "Afghan Warlord’s Call to Arms Rattles Officials". Retrieved November 15, 2012. 
  7. MPs launch signature campaign to summon Khan, Pajhwok Afghan News. November 15, 2012.
  9. Brett Murphy (June 18, 2006). "Guantanamo Bay detainees not given access to witnesses despite availability". 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Carlotta Gall, Andy Worthington (February 5, 2008). "Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S.". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-05. "Abdul Razzaq Hekmati was regarded here as a war hero, famous for his resistance to the Russian occupation in the 1980s and later for a daring prison break he organized for three opponents of the Taliban government in 1999." 
  11. - Afghanistan: Radio Free Afghanistan journalist attacked and expelled fro
  12. Afghanistan: Torture and Political Repression in Herat, John Sifton (November 5, 2002)
  13. Profile: Ismail Khan, BBC News(September 2004)

External links

Preceded by
Minister of Water and Energy
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Governor of Herat Province
Succeeded by
Sayed Muhammad Khairkhwa
Preceded by
Governor of Herat Province
Succeeded by

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