Afghan governor scents treacherySHAHBET: Plans for Afghanistan's first democratic election in October mean little to Ismail Khan as he strides across a hill top, satellite phone in hand, flanked by commanders and a battle tank at his back.
The governor of the western province of Herat is bristling with anger that the Afghan National Army supported by US air power is playing peacemaker rather than destroying an enemy whose forces, Khan says, are drawn from remnants of the Taliban.
President Hamid Karzai's new army and 18,000 US led troops are hunting Taliban and members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda in the south and east. But the crisis in the west, has come right before an election in which security will be a central issue.
"Three weeks ago I went to Kabul ... and at that time I told President Karzai that our enemies were making plans to do something," Ismail Khan said in a roadside interview, as his troops passed through the village of Shahbet in Adraskan district, 75 km south of Herat city.
"I also told Karzai some of his cabinet members were involved," says the self-styled "Amir of Herat", his white robes and turban flecked with dust kicked up by tanks and trucks laden with ammunition.
His fears were well placed. Last week, a renegade militia commander, Amanullah Khan, launched an offensive that swept toward Herat, Afghanistan's second largest city and capital of the province bordering Iran.
The governor says fifty people were killed in the fighting and he fears his enemy will kill fifty more held captive. Karzai responded by rushing two battalions to restore order.
Dread that the conflict could stir ethnic tensions - Ismail Khan is a Tajik and ethnic Pashtuns and Hazaras in Herat complain they are discriminated against - finally made Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador in Kabul, act.
BELATED RELIEF: After a US-brokered ceasefire on Tuesday, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun, pulled his militia back to Shindand, a sprawling disused former Soviet airbase 125 km south of Herat.
On Friday, US Black Hawk helicopter gunships were patrolling the area while the Afghan army has put itself between the two opposing forces. But Ismail Khan doubts whether the 800,000 people in Herat who registered to vote in the October 9 presidential election, will bother after seeing Kabul's failure to strike hard or act sooner.
"We are all disappointed. We will not go to vote." Fiercely independent, regarded as sympathetic to Iran and suspicious of US backing for Karzai, Ismail Khan, a small man with a heavy beard, is a war veteran with a nose for a trap.
Twenty-five years ago as a major in the Afghan army he led a mutiny in Herat that set off a chain of events leading to the Soviet invasion in late 1979. Years later Ismail Khan was jailed during the Taliban's rule after an ally sold him out, but escaped to become one of the warlords, or mujahideen leaders, in the Northern Alliance that helped drive the Taliban from power in late 2001.
Earlier this year there was an assassination attempt on him, and his son Mirwais Sadiq, the aviation minister, was killed. It led to fierce clashes in March between his own militia and central government forces garrisoned in Herat. -Reuters