Last Updated: Sun Feb 19, 2012 08:47 am (KSA) 05:47 am (GMT)

Bodyguards and business secure peace in Afghanistan’s Herat

The Taliban are not the main threat in Herat. Instead rivalries for power and influence in the city fuel much of the trouble. (Reuters)
The Taliban are not the main threat in Herat. Instead rivalries for power and influence in the city fuel much of the trouble. (Reuters)

Afghan businessman Seros Alaaf paid a $300,000 ransom to free his uncle from the clutches of the mafia who once stalked Herat. Now he takes no chances, with five bodyguards at his side.

Recalling the most troubled days in Afghanistan’s western city, the powerful figure in the Herat Chamber of Commerce and Industry casts around his plush office, part of the business boom that is helping to safeguard the city.

“There are far fewer kidnappings these days, but it hasn’t stopped, and the only reason it’s less is that whoever has money can also pay for five to 10 bodyguards,” said Alaaf, blaming weak governance for the mafia’s rule.

But seven months after Italian troops handed responsibility for the city to Afghans, as part of the first phase of returning control to local security forces nationwide by the end of 2014, the government says security has improved.

The Taliban are not the main threat in Herat. Instead rivalries for power and influence in the city fuel much of the trouble, with gunmen loyal to mujahedeen leaders Ismail Khan and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar still at large.

Although it is early days and political opponents challenge claims of an improvement, Herat could be considered an example of how managing factions and a relatively flourishing economy can keep a region largely free of violence.

But under the surface, there are also signs of the festering rivalries, ethnic and political, that experts consider the potential undoing of a future political settlement.

The province’s religious leader, Maulavi Khudadad Saleh, a conservative popular among Herat’s Pashtuns, is at loggerheads with the city’s Westernized technocrat governor Daud Shah Saba, a Tajik.

Government is dominated by those affiliated with the Jamiat-e-Islami Islamic party, which Ismail Khan led in the western region during the Soviet war and subsequent civil conflict.

But they are kept in check at least partly by Saba, who although from Herat has had a career in international development and is disconnected from the main local power factions.

“Security’s pretty good”

Unlike the checkpoints and blast walls of the Afghan capital, Herat’s roads are free from military intrusion and its police largely unarmed.

Only 320 police work in Herat city, while in the province’s most remote district of Farsi, 160 kilometers (100 miles) away, just 42 patrol.

“It’s below any kind of standard you may imagine,” says Saba. “Still security’s pretty good.”

Sayed Ahmad Sami, the region’s police chief and a fellow Tajik, agrees.

“Before transition there were a lot of problems like abduction and organized crime. Now it’s close to zero. For the past month there have been no abductions,” he told AFP.

Change has come piecemeal and one deal at a time. Three years ago the police force was divided into factions loyal to Ismail Khan and religious leader Saleh, and kidnapping was the biggest racket in town, with ransoms fetching up to $600,000.

The capture of a well-known money changer in late 2008 led to a shopkeepers’ strike, and ultimately the sacking of 12 police commanders and the former governor who was accused of being in league with the kidnappers.

Government officials say security along major highways is improving and plans for major economic projects bring promise of future dividends.

The Italians are agreeing a $150 million soft loan to help make Herat a “transport hub” by building up the airport and creating a bypass road around the city.

Security for a major hydroelectric dam project was being provided by a protection racket whose members were extorting money from villagers. Kabul intervened last summer and the security setup was changed.

In October 2009, former Herat mayor Ghulam Yahya Akbari, dubbed the “Tajik Taliban”, was killed and although his son still fights the government, officials claim insurgents are being reconciled.

Peace confined to city limits

But the rosy view is challenged by Ahmad Behzad, an MP for Herat and second deputy speaker for parliament, who represents the growing influence of the Hazara community in the area, and says peace is confined to the city limits.

“If there’s real transition, the Taliban will advance. Apart from the provincial capital Herat city, the other parts are all insecure. Provincial MPs are always escorted with a large number of guards,” he said.

Fears of a return to the civil war of the 1990s loom large and nobody expects corruption to end -- only for more deals to be done.

In three of 15 Herat districts that remain under overall control of NATO’s Italian-led coalition force, competition remains fierce between Hezb-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Islami forces.

But in 2004, Khan moved to the capital and was given the national energy and water ministry, although some of those who lost jobs with his departure have continued to wage jihad against the local government.

Hekmatyar is also engaged in peace talks with the Kabul government, which could conceivably end in him laying down his weapons.

His group is putting pressure on Kabul for “more power and jobs inside government. It’s good that they are talking,” said journalist Basir Bigzad. “People are worried about another civil war after foreign troops leave.”

Governor Saba is confident that there will be no Taliban return to Herat “because times have changed” since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion brought down their regime.

“The only thing that may threaten Herat is infiltration and political interference,” said Saba, referring to the threat posed by commanders in neighboring provinces, and across the western border in Iran.

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