Rivals fight over credit for Herat victory

OLD HABITS: The liberation of Herat from Taliban control has revived ethnic mistrust between two groups in the Northern Alliance that threatens a return to bloodshed


Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 5

It would not seem to augur good things for this city that while everyone agrees that the Taliban have been vanquished here, not everyone agrees who deserves the credit.

Two groups, both part of the Northern Alliance, joined together to fight the Taliban in Herat. But now each is portraying itself as the city's liberator and making its grab for power, backed up by the wea-pons used to defeat the Taliban. And each is accusing the other of being armed by Iran, whose border is about 100km away.

One group is the Islamic Population, led by Ismail Khan, the commander who governed here before the Taliban came to power and whose supporters proclaimed him governor once again last week. Khan has said he wants to hold elections, but in the meantime he plans to appoint officials to govern based on "capability," he said, not ethnicity or religion.

The other group, the Party of Unity, mostly represents the region's ethnic Hazara and Shiite Muslim minorities. Its leaders want to make sure that whatever regional government is ultimately formed represents every ethnic group and religious sect. The Hazara were particularly persecuted under the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun.

The party's political director, Moosa Rezai, said, "We believe as long as all ethnic groups' demands are not met, peace will not return."

It would be one thing if the struggle between the two were confined to the graffiti war under way here, in which each side writes its name over the other's. But both sides are heavily armed, and while Khan has sent most of his troops out of the city or to military bases in the past day or two to help restore order, Rezai has deliberately avoided doing so. He has 1,000 men in the city, he said, and 2,000 outside it.

"To try to send troops out of the city will not work until there is an agreement with other leaders on how governing will work in Herat," he said. "We've had a very clear stand from the beginning: according to the proportion of our supporters, we have to have representation."

Khan's spokesman, Nasir Ahmad Alavi, said that he hoped that after 24 years of civil wars, divergent groups would identify themselves simply as Afghans "and expect to have a position in the future government of Afghanistan based on capabilities and efficiencies, not because they are the leader of an ethnic group or religious minority."

Although Khan's supporters are getting set to govern for the long haul, the Party of Unity sees his rule as a short-term proposition.

"In liberating Herat there was no talk of supporting one person," said Qari Ahmadali Ghoordarvazi, the secretary-general of Hezbollah of Afghanistan, one of the factions in Party of Unity. "We liberated Herat together."

Ghoordarvazi, a man who some here say would like to be governor himself, said the central government had not appointed Khan; rather, expediency had anointed him. When things normalized, he said, a more representative government would have to be established.

Things are far from normal yet. There have been two reported skirmishes between the camps in Herat itself, where Khan's forces have made no secret of their desire to disarm the Party of Unity or at least get its soldiers into military bases. And there have been clashes near the Iranian border, as both groups battle for control there.

Khan's supporters say the tension is being inflamed by the arms flowing to the Party of Unity. While many of the weapons probably date back to the Soviet occupation, others appear to be new.