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HERAT, Afghanistan – Afghanistan could face a war with the Islamic State group if the government does not resolve internal differences and improve the security situation, one of the country's most powerful warlords warned in an interview with The Associated Press.
The Islamic State group, based in Iraq and Syria, is believed to have a small presence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are the most powerful militant group and have been waging an insurgency against the government.
Ismail Khan, long a dominant figure in Afghanistan's western province of Herat, told the AP that the numbers of IS supporters are growing because of the government's divisions.
Seven months after taking office, President Ashraf Ghani has yet to appoint a Cabinet to introduce reforms that could boost economic growth, reduce poverty and create jobs. Khan, like many Afghans, attribute the failures to differences between Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who was his opponent in the bitterly contested presidential election and became his partner in a national unity government under an arrangement brokered by the United States.
"The differences that exist in the national unity government . are helping to boost the enemies' morale, the morale of Daesh and the Taliban," Khan told the AP, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. "This has made people really very worried."
Khan has emerged as an outspoken opponent of Ghani, in part because the president has sought to squeeze out Khan's generation of warlords, who for decades held sway over portions of Afghanistan, running their own armies. Khan was one of the leaders of the "mujahedeen," the forces that fought the military of the then-Soviet Union during its 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan, then battled the Taliban after they came to power in 1996.
Herat, which borders Iran, was virtually his fiefdom. After the Taliban fall in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Khan became Herat's governor. Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai, made Khan minister of water and energy in 2005 in an attempt to clip his wings, fearing he'd become too autonomous. Though he no longer holds an official position, he remains an influential figure in Herat and across northern Afghanistan with a core of fighters still loyal to him.
Warlords such as Khan — and other former mujahedeen leaders like Atta Mohammad Noor, who is governor of Balkh province and controls much of the country's north, and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is Ghani's vice president, represent the old way of doing things in Afghanistan, powerful men who command wide loyalty in their regions.
Ghani has sought a more modern, technocratic style of governing. During his early months in the presidency, he sacked governors and police chiefs across the country. The president has also been sharply criticized by some for centering power in a close circle of associates.
Khan, who is 69 or 70, frequently leads rallies in Herat denouncing lack of action on the economy and calling for the inclusion of former mujahideen leaders like himself in the decision-making process, especially on security. He complains that mujahedeen leaders have been sidelined in favor of some who backed the communist government that the Russians invaded to support, such as newly-appointed Interior Minister Nur ul-Haq Ulumi.
He argues that the mujahedeen warlords are the most effective way of keeping the Taliban — and Islamic State group — at bay.
"For people such as us, who led the fight for 21 years against the Russians and the Taliban, it is not acceptable to stay quiet while our enemies are at our doorstep," he said. He said the former mujahideen were "a force with an anti-Taliban and Daesh vision."
The presence of Islamic State group in Afghanistan is widely acknowledged though it is still relatively small. Until recently, it was largely seen in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, including Helmand, where the government claims to have killed two former Taliban commanders who switched allegiance and set up a recruiting network.
Afghanistan's senior Shiite leader Mohammad Mohaqiq said IS loyalists in southern Zabul province were behind the abduction of 31 ethnic Hazara Shiites in late February. Khan said the group now has a presence in Farah province, neighboring Herat, and in Herat province itself, including the Shindand area, where Khan was born.
He warned that IS, along with Taliban already in the area, can cause insecurity in Herat
"If the national unity government does not (settle its differences and) bring stability, it will be very difficult for us. We are worried that a third, unwanted war with Daesh would be imposed on Afghanistan. We hope that does not happen."
He said the Taliban remain the main threat. But he said the lack of coordination in the unity government "will make it difficult for the police and army to control the fight."
Since taking office in September, Ghani has sought to keep a strong control over the Afghan security forces, ordering top to bottom reforms and replacing many senior leaders.
Khan criticized Ghani's removal of local governors and police chiefs, saying some local figures have still not been officially replaced and that the president acted without consulting local leadership. He said Ghani's moves were distancing him from the people and focusing power in his own ethnic Pashtun community, neglecting other ethnicities.
The authorities, he said, "should respect the elders of this country because they are the ones who can bring people closer to the government."