'Lion of Herat' silent as warlord's Afghan city falls to Taleban

Mr Ismail Khan has for decades been a force in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city.
Mr Ismail Khan has for decades been a force in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN (AFP) - A month ago, one of Afghanistan's most famous warlords vowed to defend his city from the Taleban as he called for locals to join the fight.

Mr Ismail Khan, 75, has for decades been a force in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city that is of huge strategic value partly due to its close proximity to Iran.

But on Friday (Aug 13), after government forces had left the city and Taleban militants had taken control without a battle, the "Lion of Herat" was nowhere to be seen.

Hours after seizing the city, a group of insurgents pulled down an Afghan flag from a police station as cars and bicycles passed in seemingly normal traffic.

Others stood on the bonnet of a humvee vehicle that had been abandoned by the retreating government troops.

One insurgent gave the hint of a smile while looking into a camera, with a rocket-propelled grenade on his shoulder.

The white flag of the Taleban waved through the air on a pole pegged to a motorcycle.

Like in other cities lost to the Taleban over the past week, authorities claimed they gave up to avoid bloodshed among civilians.

"We had to leave the city in order to prevent further destruction," a senior security source from Herat told Agence France-Presse, adding that troops and city officials had retreated to army barracks outside of Herat.

Mr Khan's vast militia had a series of successes against the Taleban when the hardline Islamist group first came to power.

But he was forced to flee to Iran with thousands of his men in 1995 after an ally defected to the insurgents.

He was captured by the Taleban in 1997 when he returned to organise an uprising, but escaped from prison two years later and was at large until the US invasion in 2001.

Last month, he was again breathing defiance.

"We will soon go to the frontlines and with the help of God change the situation," Mr Khan, 75, told a news conference. "We hope that men and women of Herat decide at this moment to support the resistance front to defend their freedom and safeguard their honour."

He blamed the government for the rapidly deteriorating situation and urged the military to show more backbone.

"We demand all the remaining security forces resist with courage," he said.