Ismail Khan is an Afghan regional leader, whose base has been centered around Herat city and Herat Province in the West. He is significant as being one of the Afghan leaders closest to Iran, although he has demonstrated some moves not in Iran's favor. Ethnically, he is Tajik with Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, as a native language. Ahmed Rashid, who had known him personally for nearly two decades, describes him as a "genuine warlord, both ruthless and popular, a provider of essential services to the people and a perpetrator of terror".
Khan led the 1979 revolt against the Communist-friendly Taraki government's land reform, in which Soviet advisers and families were killed, triggering an intense Afghan-Soviet response that killed up to 24,000 Heratis and destroyed most of the city. After the Soviets left, he retook the city, Herat province, and two other provinces. He remained respected in the area and was considered to run a reasonably competent administration.
He fought the Taliban, even threatening their stronghold Kandahar at one point, but was defeated and escaped to Iran in 1995. He was also imprisoned by them at one point, but escaped. In the Afghanistan War (2001-), he joined the Northern Alliance and was part of defeating the Taliban. When the US-led invasion began, his forces (coming in from nearby Iran) liberated Herat before the main Alliance forces (coming from the North, with a mountain range to cross) reached Kabul.
In the spring of 2002, Rashid said he was hosting US special operators, watching Iran. Khan played Iranian, US, and Taliban interests against one another. Rashid visited Khan, asking him to allow a nonpolitical magazine, which he had started to provide information on reconstruction, he had started to resume publishing. He did so, "as a favor to an old friend", but twice arrested the leader of the publishing group, the Council of Professionals, Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, and tortured him. Khan freed him only after the Americans, the UN, and Karzai intervened. The Council continued operations.
He became governor of Herat, a powerful post, but his relationship with the central government was strained:
Khan is a legendary commander and much venerated and revered by the majority of Heratis. Khan has repaved roads, is upgrading parks, building schools, cleaning streets and erecting monuments, thanks to the substantial influx of customs revenue he collects from the busy border crossing with Iran - money that Karzai's government says belongs to the central government. The BBC has reported that millions of dollars in tax revenues are collected every month -- little, if any, of which is sent to Kabul.
- Ahmed Rashid (2006), Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Viking, ISBN 9780670019700, pp. 125
- Thomas H. Johnson (July 2004), "Ismail Khan, Herat, and Iranian Influence", Strategic Insights, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School III (7)
- Ahmed Rashid (2000), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300089023, p. 37
- Peter Bergen (May 5, 2009), "Commentary: Afghan leader holding strong cards", CNN