Herat was a city I was looking forward to. Denied a visa into Iran, I knew Herat with its heavy Persian influence was about as close to Iran as I would get for a while. The city had a history that intrigued me as well.
If you want to skip the background, you can just jump to the pictures below. However, if you want background, please read on:
Historically called “Aria”, Herat is believed to be 2,700 years old. It is the third largest city of Afghanistan (after Kabul and Khandahar), with a population estimated at 397,500 to over one million.
Herat has been conquered countless times throughout its history, but perhaps most significantly by Genghis Khan in 1221. Mr. Khan handed the city over to one of his sons, Tuli, but after he left, the locals revolted and slaughtered the Mongol garrison. Upon hearing the news, and not being one to mess about, Genghis Khan immediately rode down upon the city with 80,000 soldiers and besieged it for about six months, killing all but forty inhabitants and completely destroying Herat.
Recent History: Ismail Khan
Fast forward to 1979 (when Afghanistan was the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan) and, even before the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979, there was a substantial presence of Soviet advisors in the city with their families. From the 10th to the 20th of March, the army in Herat, loyal to Ismail Khan and seeing what was coming with the Soviet Union, mutinied and 35 Soviet citizens were killed. As a punitive measure, the Red Army, backed by the Afghan Air Force, bombed the city into ruins – killing some 24,000 civilians in the process. Soon after, tanks and airborne forces brought the city firmly back under the control of the Red Army. For the remainder of their presence in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union utilized the Herat airport as a military base.
Ismail Khan became the leading Mujahadin commander in Herat. And after the departure of the Soviet Union, he was rewarded by becoming governor of Herat before being forced to flee his city again in September 1995 when the Taliban took over the city.
The 2001 uprising in Herat that led to the fall of the Taliban in the city on November 12th was an action allegedly carefully coordinated between Northern Alliance forces as well as Special Forces of both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As it was told to me, the U.S. Special Operations teams consisted of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force under the command of CENTCOM General Tommy Franks. Iranian forces consisted of agents of the Qods Force under the command of Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi. The Northern Alliance faction consisted of over 5,000 militiamen under the command of Ismail Khan.
As planned by General Franks and General Safavi, Iranian commandos secretly entered Herat to begin the insurrection. The Northern Alliance, Shiite ethnic factions, and a small group of U.S. Special Forces entered the city under the guidance of Ismail Khan. The Iranians launched the insurrection, which successfully gave way to, what Ismail Khan claimed to be, the local uprising against the Taliban leaders. A US Special Forces team of officers and CIA personnel, meanwhile, remained in Tehran to oversee the smooth operation of the joint venture — the first time the CIA was allowed to set foot in the Iranian capital since 1979.
Ismail Khan declared himself governor of Herat province and ruled Herat as his own personal fiefdom until September 2004 when he was “transferred” to Kabul by President Hamid Karzai to serve as energy minister. Khan was removed from power as part of a secret plan backed by the United States to reduce the power of Afghanistan’s regional warlords and their private armies and because, while governor, he refused to hand over to the central administration in Kabul millions of dollars in tariffs from trade with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan, much to the annoyance of Karzai’s cash-strapped government. Instead he used the money on roads, schools, hospitals and factories, turning the war-damaged city into the most prosperous in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Given the goodwill generated by his pouring money into the city and province, Khan’s departure met with resistance. Several people were killed in riots and the offices of UN and other aid agencies were torched by his supporters opposed to the appointment (which Khan took several months to accept).
Coincidentally, of course,…*ahem*… Mirwais Sadiq, Aviation Minister of Afghanistan and, more importantly, the son of Ismail Khan, was ambushed and killed in Herat in 2004. More than 200 people were arrested under suspicion of involvement.
Despite being cut off from his regional power base, Khan remains an important figure in Herat. About 10 of his supporters made their way into the parliament elected in September.
Recent History: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda
There’s one last character connected to Herat I must touch on… Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Upon his release from prison in 1999, Zarqawi was involved in an attempt to blow up the Radisson Hotel in Amman. But, the plot was discovered in its late stages and Zarqawi fled to Peshawar, Pakistan near the Afghan border. That year, with his visa revoked by the Pakistani authorities, he crossed the border into Afghanistan and made his first contacts with al-Qaeda. Zarqawi met in Kandahar and Kabul with bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders and asked them for assistance and money to set up his own training camp in Herat, near the Iranian border. With $200,000 of start up money from Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi formed the group Jund al-Sham (which originally consisted of 150 members) and opened his camp for business. The camp immediately began to attract Jordanian militants and it was decided that the Herat camp would specialize in poisons and explosives.
In mid-2001, Zarqawi returned to Kandahar to ask al-Qaeda for $35,000 to finance a plan for his fighters to infiltrate Israel, according to a U.S. Treasury Department report. Zarqawi’s group continued to received funding from Osama bin Laden and pursued “a largely distinct, if occasionally overlapping agenda,” according to The Washington Post. Counterterrorism experts told the Washington Post that while Zarqawi accepted al-Qaeda’s financial help to set up a training camp in Afghanistan he ran it independently and while bin Laden was planning September 11, Zarqawi was busy developing a plot to topple the Jordanian monarchy and attack Israel.
Zarqawi and his Jund al-Sham joined Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters resisting the U.S.-led invasion around Herat and Kandahar, but in late 2001, he was wounded in the chest during a firefight and broke three ribs. By January 2002, he and many of his followers crossed into Iran, with the help of fraudulent passports delivered by supporters in Europe.
Zarqawi’s whereabouts in 2002 often were difficult to pin down, although Western and Arab intelligence agencies said that he moved frequently and with relative ease among Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, expanding his network and infiltrating associates into Turkey, Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Sweden and Germany. They begin coordinating and planning ricin and cyanide attacks via a loose association of cells. These operatives, however, were arrested in a series of raids between January and March of 2003.
But by then Zarqawi was on the verge of launching himself into international infamy through his activities in Iraq…
Arriving at the airport in Herat is a bit different than arriving at LAX. The guy you see below unloaded the luggage on the plane by himself and then wheeled the cart over (again by himself) to where everyone was waiting by the fence. At that point the waiting mob descended on the cart and began digging out their luggage.
Kids with wheelbarrows will swarm around you to try and get you to give them a few coins for transporting your luggage to a taxi or waiting car:
The drive into Herat is along streets lined with pine trees and mixed in with scenes like the one below, you almost feel like you’re in a normal city. Iran has invested a lot of money into Herat and as a result, Herat now enjoys 24-hour electricity, well-paved roads, and a higher sense of security than other Afghan cities. Some locals jokingly refer to Herat as the “Dubai of Afghanistan.”
Yeah, the guys below are tripled up on the tiny motorcycle:
Herat is known for the production and sale of rugs. The rugs aren’t cheap though. You can spend anywhere from $50 to $1,500 dollars depending on which tribe made the rug, whether it was made by hand or by machine and whether it is made out of silk, wool, camel wool or some combination:
A man hard at work producing a rug in the back of one of the shops I visited:
A flower shop in Herat:
This guy in front of the Friday Mosque was a small business owner. His business is next to him – it’s that scale. For a few coins you can check your weight. The entrepreneurial spirit at its finest:
The Friday Mosque:
In 1997, Taliban leaders drove a 600 year-old Afghan art form to near extinction when they fired 22 of the 30 craftsmen at the Blue Mosque Tile Factory. The eight remaining blue-tile artisans held in their hands the fate of this ancient craft. After U.S. and coalition forces expelled the Taliban from power in 2001, the factory, now called the Blue Mosque Preservation Center and connected to the Friday Mosque, began to flourish.
Mixing clay (below) in order to form the tiles:
The man in charge of the Blue Mosque Preservation Center… A very friendly guy and also on the Olympic weightlifting team for Afghanistan. Seriously.
A Westerner at the Friday Mosque was enough to bring out the local news media. I wonder what they said about me?
One of the guards outside the Friday Mosque:
See Visiting Herat, Afghanistan: Part 2 of 2…