Afghan warlord's call to arms rattles officials

Herat, Nov. 13: One of the most powerful mujahideen commanders in Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, is calling on his followers to reorganise and defend the country against the Taliban as western militaries withdraw, in a public demonstration of faltering confidence in the national government and the western-built Afghan National Army.

Khan is one of the strongest of a group of warlords who defined the country's recent history in battling the Soviets, the Taliban and one another, and who then were brought into President Hamid Karzai's cabinet as a symbol of unity.

Now, in announcing that he is remobilising his forces, Khan has rankled Afghan officials and stoked fears that other regional and factional leaders will follow suit and rearm, weakening support for the government and increasing the likelihood of civil war.

This month, Khan rallied thousands of his supporters in the desert outside Herat, the cultured western provincial capital and the centre of his power base, urging them to coordinate and reactivate their networks. And he has begun enlisting new recruits and organising district command structures.

"We are responsible for maintaining security in our country and not letting Afghanistan be destroyed again," Khan, the minister of energy and water, said at a news conference over the weekend at his office in Kabul.

But after facing criticism, he took care not to frame his action as defying the government: "There are parts of the country where the government forces cannot operate, and in such areas the locals should step forward, take arms and defend the country."

President Karzai and his aides, however, were not greeting it as an altruistic gesture. The governor of Herat province called Khan's reorganisation an illegal challenge to the national security forces. And Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, tersely criticised Khan.

"The remarks by Ismail Khan do not reflect the policies of the Afghan government," Faizi said. "The government of Afghanistan and the Afghan people do not want any irresponsible armed grouping outside the legitimate security forces structures."

In Kabul, Khan's provocative actions have played out in the news media and brought a fierce reaction from some MPs, who said the warlords were preparing to take advantage of the American troop withdrawal set for 2014.

"People like Ismail Khan smell blood," Belqis Roshan, a senator from Farah province, said in an interview.