Herat emerges as the most powerful face of anti-Taliban resistance

Until a few days ago, it was uncertain if Herat, a western Afghan city encircled by insurgents from three sides, would survive the Taliban onslaught or not

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Aug 03, 2021
Anti-Taliban resistance

Until a few days ago, it was uncertain if Herat, a western Afghan city encircled by insurgents from three sides, would survive the Taliban onslaught or not. The city had been cut off from a nearby airport, and several of its roads were blocked for ground supplies. Hundreds of Taliban fighters had reportedly infiltrated the outer security cordon. Its residents were in panic. 

On Monday evening, the slogan of “Allah Akbar” echoed through the city of 400,000. Thousands of Heratis, standing on their roofs, balconies, and gates,  chanted the slogan, in support of the Afghan government, security forces. Hundreds of youths took to the streets, marching towards the outer security sphere of the city. 

The Taliban were pushed out of Herat, a city known as the industrial hub of the war-torn country.  Attacks were thwarted with the support of popular local uprising and Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. The Herat and its spirit were saved - at least for time being. 

The video of the Monday evening went viral on social media platforms. It showed the collective spirit of people who were just moved by the determination to safeguard their ancient city from the Taliban, a group that doesn’t have scant similarities with the traditional, liberal, and tolerant ways of Herat. 

From politicians to common Afghans, the scene at the Herat moved everyone, making many of them emotional. So far, it was the most powerful moment, or say the face, of the fierce public resistance against the Taliban. 

“Tonight was a special night, I wept all alone on the roof of my building hearing people shouting God is great,” Ahmadullah Azadani, an Afghan who has lost his parents, uncles, cousins in the conflict tweeted. “It was a short moment of true inner feelings, but I think it was a once-in-a-life experience, shaking my body in finding hope, sense of belonging, and community,” he added. 

Herat has a history of resistance. In 1979, it was the first big city that witnessed a popular uprising against Soviet occupation. At the time, Ismail Khan, a young captain in the Afghan Army, revolted and led the resistance against Soviet troops. He would later become one of the most popular leaders in the Western province of Herat. 

In the late 90s, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Herat was the place where the group faced fierce resistance. Thousands of insurgents were killed then and in revenge the Taliban massacred civilians. However, the group has always remain alien to the people of the city. 

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the city prospered, developed, and scored better than any Afghan city on indicators. Until, a few years ago, Herat province had remained one of the most secured provinces of the country. 

Almost 40 years later, when the city is again threatened by the Taliban, Ismail Khan, now in his 70s, has been leading the local resistance force there. The elderly man, with white long shiny flowing beard and a gun in his hands, has been seen running around the city, leading his forces against the Taliban. 

For years, he had been looked at as any other Afghan warlord, notorious for their excesses, abuse of power in the post-2001 political setup. In the last 3-4 years, he had even been sidelined by Afghan President Ghani. However, in the last three months, that perception has changed for many, if not all.

Today, he has become a force, a line that is keeping the Taliban’s professed Emirate out of Herat, knowing very well if the city falls, his own fate won’t be any different from former Afghan President Najibullah who was brutally killed by the Taliban in 1996, when the group captured Kabul. Najibullah’s body was then hanged at the city square. 

People across the political spectrum, including those who had criticized him for years, are praising Khan’s courage, commitment, and fighting spirit against the marauding Taliban. 

The resistance against the Taliban in Herat is a big morale booster for the embattled Afghan republic. This is definitely going to have a psychological impact on the war. 

“If Herat doesn’t fall, this might become a turning point in the Afghan war,” said Avinash Paliwal, associate professor at SOAS South Asia Institute and an expert on Afghanistan. “He (Ismail Khan) is likely to be immortalized in western Afghanistan if he succeeds to hold ground,” he said in a tweet.