How Ghulam Yahya Became an Insurgent

Via Benjamin Friedman, a must-read article from Yaroslav Trofimov in The Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya — former anti-Soviet holy warrior, former anti-Taliban commander, former Mayor of Herat — became an insurgent. The story has some twists and turns, but the long and short of it was that Yahya, a Tajik and not a natural ally of the Taliban, was a kind of sub-warlord working for Ismail Khan, an anti-Taliban Tajik warlord who controlled the larger Herat area after the overthrow of the Taliban. Back in 2004 as part of a drive to centralize authority under Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Khan was removed as governor of Herat Province and “[t]o retain his loyalty, President Karzai appointed Mr. Khan Afghanistan’s minister of water and power.” But that left Yahya behind in the new order:

Once Mr. Khan left for Kabul, Mr. Yahya had to work with the new provincial authorities, who proved deeply unpopular as crime and corruption spiked, stifling Herat’s post-Taliban economic boom. Criminal gangs, some allied with newly arrived police officials, went on a kidnapping spree, terrorizing prominent Heratis. “Most of the factories had to be closed and business activity shrank,” said Mr. Ghaswi, the industrialist. “Business owners were afraid to move in the city because of all these abductions for ransom.”

Mr. Yahya also became a target of the Afghan government’s anti-warlord drive that, with United Nations assistance, pressed smaller “illegal armed groups” to disarm. He refused, claiming not to have any weapons caches.

In 2006, Yahya was sacked as Mayor of Herat. So he went back to his hometown, which is close to but outside of the main city and became an insurgent. He’s now allied with the Taliban, and probably the most prominent non-Pashto rebel against the central government and American authorities.


There are a bunch of points one could make about this, but one thing that seems salient here is just to highlight the inherent difficulty of imposing centralized authority in this country. The effort to do so provoked Yahya’s rebellion which is now undermining central authority and helping the Taliban. But if the Taliban were to gain the actual upper hand in the war, the same problem would arise all over again. Ismail Khan and Ghulam Yahya aren’t committed to Karzai or the Taliban or the United States or anyone else by strong bonds of ideology and principled commitment. They’re like feudal leaders, who have their own network of followers and resources and a willingness to tack this way or that according to circumstances. But the goal is always to enhance their own autonomy, power, and wealthy in a way that’s necessarily centripetal. When we were backing the mujahedeen against the USSR, and then later when we backed the warlords against the Taliban, we were adopting strategies in which these centripetal tendencies were aligned with our objectives. By adopting the goal of a stable centrally governed state, these tendencies are now working against us.