Oral History Podcast
Interlocutor: Ferdaws Kawish.
Dear viewers, listeners, and readers of Sheesha Media,
Please accept my regards and greetings.
In this episode of the Oral History podcast, we talk with General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, delving into one of the pivotal and sensitive moments in Afghanistan’s history over the last four decades. From 1994 to 1995, we will discuss the events in the southwest of Afghanistan during this time, which laid the foundation for future developments in the following years and decades. Join us as we delve into this critical topic with General Azimi.
In 1994, the Taliban emerged in Kandahar, and by 1995, their forces had captured all the southwestern provinces of Afghanistan, including Herat. Initially, it was believed that the well-equipped forces of Amir Muhammad Ismail Khan, who was the governor and protector of Herat at the time, would easily defeat the newly emerging Taliban and regain control of Helmand and Kandahar. However, the war’s outcome was in favor of the seemingly ill-equipped, unknown, and failing Taliban, who could conquer Herat and other southwestern provinces even though the forces stationed there had advanced military equipment, ample ammunition, air force, and experienced commanders. This incredible event of Herat falling to the Taliban in the summer of 1995 left many in awe. What was the secret behind this stunning outcome?
The emergence of the Taliban and their rapid conquest of southwestern provinces in 1995 remains a mystery to many, with its secrets yet uncovered. General Zahir Azimi, who was the military commissioner of Herat from 1992 to 1995 and one of the key figures in the southwestern Afghan military formations during that time, is one of the few eyewitnesses to that era. In this conversation, he attempts to shed light on the fall of Herat in 1995. General Azimi has not only a military background but also a literary one, having written a treatise titled “How did the Taliban come?” in 1998, which was the first book on the rise of the Taliban movement. This conversation is a part of the oral history of a crucial period in Afghanistan’s history over the past 42 years and provides valuable insight into this pivotal moment.
School, Student, and Military days
Sheesha Media: Mr. Azizmi, Can you please provide a brief overview of your background, including how you went from your childhood to becoming Herat’s military commissioner in 1992? Also, can you tell us about your birthplace, family background, journey to becoming a soldier, and political activities?
General Azimi: Greetings to you and the audience of this conversation. I was born on November 15, 1954, in the beautiful city of Herat, which I hold dear to my heart. I received my elementary, middle, and high school education in Herat. During my high school years, I was briefly imprisoned during the demonstrations of 1970. Along with some other students from Herat, I was taken into custody. After high school, I pursued my Bachelor’s degree in Literature from Iran. Unfortunately, during my last year, the Iranian revolution erupted, causing unrest and the closure of universities. As a result, I could not receive my degree immediately upon graduation, but I eventually received it later.
After completing my studies, I returned to Afghanistan and discovered my interest in military affairs. The demonstration in Herat in 1970-1971, which resulted in the arrest of many students, had a profound impact on me. At the time, 300 students from my school were imprisoned, some of whom were released after a few months, and some were held in custody for a longer period. This experience led me to join the army and attend the 242nd Parachute Unit. I completed an officer training course at Commando and Parachute School, where our instructors were Russian. Upon completing the course, I officially became an army officer in the same 242nd Parachute Unit.
During my time as an officer, I was closely in touch with Mawen Naiem, Majid Agha (Majib Kalkani)’s deputy, who was the second-in-command of Seyyed Majid Agha. Mawen Naeem had a family connection with me. In the 1960s, both Majid Agha and Mawen Naeem were unfortunately executed. In 1979, Mawen Naeem approached me and requested weapons for his organization. He stated that they needed Kalashnikov rifles, also known as “Qataki” by the general population. At that time, only the 242nd Parachute Unit, the Commando Unit, and a newly formed unit tasked with protecting the citadel had such Kalashnikovs, and the rest of the army lacked those weapons and supplies.
Mawen Naeem was my cousin, the son of my aunt. Due to my close relationship with him, I was pressured to secretly obtain and provide him with some of the Kalashnikov rifles. When it became known that the weapons were missing from the depot, suspicion fell upon me, and even though there was no concrete evidence against me, other factors raised doubts. I was a native of Herat, and the recent uprising of the 24 Huts had generated distrust towards all Heratians. Additionally, I spoke Persian, and at that time, there was a lot of debate around ethnicity and language, causing further accusations. Faced with these challenges, I decided to leave the army and come to Herat, where I was welcomed by a friend of my grandmother, Gul Mohammad Tizan. He encouraged me to join the ranks of Jihad. Although I did not actively participate in any operations against the Russians, I was indirectly involved in military activities. Eventually, the Jihad ended, and other events took place.
Sheesha Media: Sorry, Mr. General Azimi. To clarify our conversation, I would like to ask a question. Let’s move forward and discuss the situation after the Russian withdrawal. You mentioned a demonstration in Herat in 1349, and if I recall correctly, you were in 12th grade at that time. Can you tell me more about the demonstration and what happened?
General Azimi: No, I was in a lower grade. At that time, protests were against the government all over Afghanistan, including high schools. In Herat, there was a similar demonstration, and Abdul Khaliq, a prominent member of the People’s Democratic Party’s faction in Herat, was killed. This murder was one of the reasons why many students were expelled from schools. Most of the Maoists or Sholahites were leaders of the demonstration in Herat in 1349.
Sheesha Media: You mentioned that you were lower than 12th grade, which would make you in 10th or 11th grade. Can you tell me what your political beliefs were at that time?
General Azimi: That was my teenage years. During that time, Sholeh Javid was the leader of all political campaigns in the western region of Afghanistan.
Sheesha Media: Were you a member of any organizations associated with the Eternal Flame (Sholaye Jawed) movement, such as “Rahai” or “Sama”? Or were you just a supporter of them?
General Azimi: No, I was not a member. However, most teenagers at that time supported this movement and its demonstrations. 9th, 10th, or 11th-grade students were less likely to have official membership in a political party or organization. They were mainly supporters, not members.
Sheesha Media: After graduation, you went to study literature at Shiraz University. Is that correct?
General Azimi: Yes, that’s correct.
Sheesha Media: In your final year at university, there was a revolution in Iran. Is that right?
General Azimi: No, there was no revolution, but there were widespread demonstrations, strikes, and revolutionary protests that led to the universities being closed. Although the universities were not officially closed by any specific body, the demonstrations and the general atmosphere of revolution caused the educational institutions to shut down.
Sheesha Media: So, you returned to Herat before the Iranian Revolution?
General Azimi: Yes, the revolution was still eight to nine months away.
Sheesha Media: Alright. Did you return after the Thaur (April) coup?
General Azimi: No, the Haft Thaur coup had not happened yet.
Sheesha Media: Were you at the military unit when the Haft Thaur coup took place and the Taraki government was in power?
General Azimi: No, I went to the military unit after the Haft Thaur coup. I was an ordinary soldier then, and I recall the day of the coup. I also actively participated in fighting against the coup. Our unit, the 242nd Parachute unit, was deployed to support Dawood Khan. Jagran (Major) Sultan Khan was the unit commander at that time. However, before taking action, our unit was surrounded by units from the 7th Battalion.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us the location of the 242nd Parachute unit?
General Azimi: In 1357, the 242nd Parachute unit was stationed in Mehtab Qalaa (Western Kabul). The 88th Artillery unit, the most elite artillery force of the army then, was also there, as well as the military school that still exists today.
Sheesha Media: So, the units stationed in Mehtab Qala, who wanted to support Dawood Khan, were surrounded?
General Azimi: Yes, that’s correct. The 242nd Parachute unit was deployed to support Dawood Khan. I was riding in Jagran (Major) Sultan Khan’s car when we left the camp. However, before we reached the military school, we were surrounded by units from the 7th Rishkhor Battalion. When we were surrounded, the unit commander fled the scene, and the unit returned to the camp.
Sheesha Media: Did the camp get bombed on the night of the coup?
General Azimi: The 242nd Parachute Unit wasn’t attacked by air. However, the 88th Artillery Unit was bombed because it had fired heavy artillery at Haft Thaur, the 8th Battalion, and other areas.
Sheesha Media: When you were accused of removing weapons from the group and were arrested in 1358, were you also the Secretary of the Youth Organization of the People’s Democratic Party at that time?
General Azimi: Yes, I was. But I was not arrested. One of the weapons was confiscated by security forces from its owners in Sar Kotel Khairkhane, and it was determined that it belonged to either the 242nd Parachute or 444th Commando Unit because of the unique cable parts on the Kalashnikov. Eventually, it was found that the weapons were from the 242nd Parachute Unit. I was the commander of armaments and responsible for maintaining the weapon warehouses. So I felt my position was weaker as I was a Persian speaker from Herat. That’s why I left the camp and went to Herat.
Sheesha Media: In the first year of the Haft Thaur coup, were factions clearly defined for those who joined the ruling party? Did you know if you were a Khalqi or Parchami?
General Azimi: No, I did not. I was accepted as a member based on the information I had, and I didn’t have a prior history of membership. So I wasn’t aligned with any faction. I was chosen as the Secretary of the Youth Organization because of my knowledge of their intellectual issues, not due to prior party membership.
Sheesha Media: You studied literature in Iran and then joined the army upon your return, following the laws.
General Azimi: Yes, I joined the army when Dawood Khan was in power, and I deemed it an excellent opportunity to fulfill my military service.
Sheesha Media: Can you comment on the military obligation law at that time?
General Azimi: The prediction of the Haft Thor coup did not exist, at least not for me and others in similar situations. We were unaware that this would happen. My family, including my late father, advised me to complete my military service so that I wouldn’t face any problems if I decided to study or work. My father thought it would be best if I finished my military service as a bachelor before getting married.
There was a connection between our family and someone named Golpacha Khan. His son-in-law, Sharafuddin Sharaf, was a prominent figure in the People’s Democratic Party and a close friend of Amin. He was a strong supporter of Amin and held various positions, including the political deputy of the Ministry of Defense and commander of the 77th commando brigade. When I was a new soldier, Sharafuddin Sharaf was assigned to the 242nd Parachute Unit.
Golpacha Khan was responsible for guarding the western transportation line in Herat. A few people from my family worked alongside him. This connection led me to visit Golpacha Khan’s house in Kabul with my midwife on several occasions. Whenever I visited Kabul, I would visit Golpacha Khan’s house to see his son-in-law. My uncle was in charge of the Western Transport Line, and his cashier was the director of its control, both of whom were close associates of Golpacha Khan.
In addition to its primary task, the Western Line Maintenance Authority was involved in constructing the Kabul-Herat highway. I visited Golpacha Khan’s house with my grandmother when I was young, and this relationship continued until my teenage years. Whenever I or any of my family members visited Kabul, we would bring a gift to Golpacha Khan’s house and be his guests. With Sharafuddin Sharaf’s support, I completed commando and parachute courses and became an officer in the 242nd Parachute Unit.
Leaving the army and joining the anti-Soviet war in Herat
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us how you transitioned from being a soldier to an officer?
General Azimi: Yes, that is correct. At that time, the regulations stated that individuals who had completed 12 years of education, such as finishing grade 14 or having a bachelor’s degree, were eligible to become officers. This also required completing a one-year course in parachute and commando units. I am not sure about the rules for other units, but in these two units, only those with higher education than grade 12 were promoted to officers. Individuals who only graduated from grade 12 were not accepted as officers.
Sheesha Media: Please clarify what happened after you were allegedly accused in 1358.
General Azimi: I would like to clarify that I was not officially accused. However, I was among those considered more vulnerable to being charged for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, I took up arms willingly and knowingly. Then, I went to Herat and joined the Jihad. I served as the provincial commander for the Raad Islamic Party of Afghanistan for several years. Later, the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan was formed, comprised of all the Shiite parties. I chose not to join the Islamic Unity Party, instead opting to join the Islamic Movement Party led by Mohammad Asif Mohseni for personal reasons.
Sheesha Media: Can you provide more information about the Hizb Raad Islami party? Was it well organized at that time?
General Azimi: Hizb Raad Islami was claimed to have been established during Mohammad Ismail Balkhi. Initially, it was led by a man named Sheikhzadeh from Kandahar. Later, it was led by Allameh Saadat Moluk Tabesh, a name you might have heard. When all the Shiite parties joined the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, the Raad party was dissolved. After its dissolution, I, who was the head of its military branch, joined the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan under the leadership of Mr. Mohammad Asif Mohseni. At the same time, several Raad party leaders, including Mr. Tabesh, gave up political work and joined the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan. The Raad party had a strong presence in the southwestern regions, such as Herat, Badghis, and Farah, and it was said to have fronts in Jaguri and some other areas of Hazarajat. However, I did not go directly to those fronts and did not see them myself.
Sheesha Media: Thank you. If I heard correctly, did you say that you were not directly involved in the wars during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan?
General Azimi: During the Russian occupation, I was directly involved in the wars and led and managed operations. After the Russians left until the fall of Dr. Najib’s government, for intellectual reasons, I did not directly participate in the war. However, our fronts were active, and all our personnel was fighting. However, I did not have a leading role in any operation.
Sheesha Media: On April 29th, 1992, Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan’s forces captured the city of Herat and replaced the government officials of Dr. Najibullah with the new administration. And you were appointed as the military commissioner of Herat on that same date?
General Azimi: Yes, that’s correct. I would like to add that the Raad party did not have good relations with the government of Iran, also known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Islamic Movement of Afghanistan faced the same situation and had poor relations with Iran. This was why the late Mohseni left Iran and went to Pakistan.
As a result, these two parties I worked with couldn’t receive substantial financial aid and weapons from Iran. However, I had a solid and friendly relationship with Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan. We were close both personally and emotionally. Furthermore, our background in holding office and working in the army added to our friendship.
We conducted several joint operations against the Russians, intending to break the belts. I took part in most of these operations under Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan’s leadership, and our political differences did not affect our friendship and collaboration. During the Jihad period, Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan was kind to me.
Sheesha Media: And this history of cooperation led to your appointment as the military commissioner of Herat after the revolution of 1992?
General Azimi: Yes, that’s correct.
The developments of 1371 and the formation of a robust and secure Herat
Sheesha Media: Excellent. Please provide information about the military formations in Herat and the southwestern region after the transformation in 1371. As a former organization member, you have in-depth knowledge of this subject. This information is crucial to our discussion as it sheds light on the security situation in Herat during a time of intense regulatory wars in Kabul. At that time, Herat was a vital and thriving power hub, much like Mazar and Jalalabad. How was the military organization structured in the southwestern region, and what factors contributed to its success in maintaining order and security, ultimately becoming a significant power source?
General Azimi: Of course. To understand this, I need to provide some background. On the night the Mujahideen intended to attack Herat and capture it, or 29 Hamal 1371, Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan issued instructions to all Mujahideen in the southwestern region. He prohibited the arbitrary entry of Mujahideen into the city of Herat and, instead, specified that only a limited number of individuals were allowed to enter the city to ensure order and security. The rest were kept from entering, as per his guidance.
As per the guidance of Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, once the designated individuals had established control over the power centers in Herat and ensured security, the Mujahideen were allowed to enter the city without weapons. It was a significant factor in maintaining order and preventing damage to property or government institutions.
On the 29th of 1371, only the special units under the leadership of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, belonging to the Islamic Jamiat of Afghanistan in the southwestern region. My units were allowed to enter Herat city to secure it. The rest of the Mujahideen were prohibited from entering. This strategy prevented any form of disorder or chaos. My troops and Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan entered the city along predetermined routes.
Another factor contributing to the situation was that all the roads leading to Herat were mined. These mines were placed during the time of the Russians and the previous government, which prevented unauthorized armed groups and Mujahideen from entering the city.
There were also underground roads and tunnels, but not many people could enter the city through that means. Some who did enter this way kept their entry secret, as Amir Saheb Muhammad Ismail Khan had a robust military presence in those areas, and the forces that entered the city could quickly gain control.
After the city of Herat was secured under our control and military dominance was established, other Mujahideen were permitted to enter the city without carrying weapons. Decisions were made by a council. I recall that only one table went missing, but it was later found, and the person who took it was sentenced to a year in prison. It shows that the offices, equipment, and weapons were all well-preserved, intact, and secure in our possession. This was the first step in maintaining order and security. Subsequently, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan instructed that weapons and equipment be registered and delivered to the military administration as soon as possible. This guidance was promptly implemented, the second step toward ensuring security.
The third reason was that all the armed groups in Herat province had disbanded. The previous government had around 70,000 armed militants within Herat, each with their units, supplies, weapons, artillery, and tanks, including T-62, T-55, and 60-PP. These groups did not have access to air power. They were fully equipped. Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan successfully disarmed them without any issues. Some militants went to Faryab, along with their weapons, to join General Sahib Dostum, while the rest were disarmed.
The remaining weapons and equipment in Herat were abundant both in quantity and quality. To my recollection, most of these weapons and ammunition were stored at the Torghandi port and were primarily unused and untouched. They were under the control of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and the leadership of the southwestern region.
The air force in the southwestern region was well-equipped, as the Soviet Union had provided numerous aircraft to Dr. Najibullah’s government. These planes were parked in Herat and Shindand and were meant to be distributed throughout Afghanistan. But with the fall of that government, they remained in the southwestern region. Additionally, a batch of brand-new T-62 tanks was stored in Turghandi and Herat to be dispatched to units across Afghanistan. But they also remained there and fell under the control of the southwestern sector, which gave the leadership in the southwest region the means to maintain order and security and become a dominant force. It’s worth noting that Herat, a city rich in cultural and historical significance, also contributed to establishing security and order in the region.
As I mentioned, Amir Muhammad Ismail Khan ordered the Mujahideen to surrender their weapons immediately. Those who failed to comply were subjected to force. Amir formed military delegations to tour Herat, Ghor, and Badghis to collect guns and maintain order and security. Order was eventually restored in Farah, albeit with some delay. The military and security power was centralized in the Herat Army Corps, the 17th Herat Division, the 4th Herat Armor, the 21st Shindand Division, and the 70th Farah Division. The 5th Border Brigade in Herat, the 9th Border Brigade in Farah and Nimroz, and the 7th Border Brigade in Shindand were established promptly and took on security responsibilities. The ports of Turghandi and Islam Qala thrived and enhanced trade security.
At the time, conflict and instability in other parts of the country had led to arbitrary checkpoints and roadblocks in places like Kandahar, which impacted commercial activities. The insecurity prompted entrepreneurs from across the country to gather in Herat, where the government administration was set up to strengthen the military presence and enhance the social and economic foundation. Soon after establishing the new order, schools and universities were opened.
Under the leadership of the late Dr. Azizullah Lodin, who held a Ph.D. in economics, the High Economic Council of Herat was established. The council contacted Afghan economists abroad for advice and received guidance from Dr. Sahib Niaz, Dr. Sahib Shaban, Dr. Sahib Farhang, and Dr. Sahib Jalil Shams. These economists eventually came to Herat, organized, and provided the foundation for creating new and effective organizations.
Later, he established the Southwest District of Herat Islamic Council, which has an intriguing story. I have written a book about it, which is currently in the process of being printed. However, due to the events that transpired and the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the publication of this book was postponed. It is being edited by Mr. Ruhol Amin Amini.
Once the work in the southwest area was completed, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan focused on resolving the country’s issues and finding a solution to end the war. Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan served as a mediator at the provincial level to resolve conflicts between commanders and prevent further war and insecurity. For instance, in Helmand, he mediated between Ghafar Akhundzadeh and Rais Abdul Wahid Baghrani, who were both Alizai but belonged to different organizations and were powerful commanders in the Helmand Province at the time. He invited them to Herat and reconciled their differences.
This experience led Emir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan to consider the more significant task of finding a political solution and compromise to end the war at the national level. The Herat Islamic Council was established with this goal in mind.
Sheesha Media: Let’s move on to another topic, the Islamic Council. Let me ask you about the issues previously discussed. You mentioned that after the downfall of Dr. Najib’s government, a new administration was established in Herat, and security was restored. At that time, there were two opposing forces in the country, both in Kabul and other regions, one being the Jamiati Islami Afghanistan, who held the presidency, and the other being the Hezbi Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who conflicted with each other. In Herat, it seems that either Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami didn’t have a substantial military force or it was dismantled by Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan’s forces. Could you tell me more about that?
General Azimi: The Islamic party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had two centers of power in the area, one in the Anjil district of Herat and the other in the Shindand district. The Anjil Circle was led by a man named Jumagol Pahlavan. I was directed by Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan to lead a detachment and engage in battle with Jumagol Pahlawan to disarm him. Preparations for the war were made in advance.
Sheesha Media: Did it occur in the year 1371?
General Azimi: Yes, as far as I recall, it was likely during the fall of 1371. I had gone to the battle of Jumagol Pahlavan with a military unit. Still, upon arriving at the location, I decided to try and negotiate with him and persuade him to surrender peacefully and resolve the issue. Interestingly, Pahlavan had stated that he would only speak with Azimi. So, I went to his camp with two other individuals and had a conversation that lasted 7 to 8 hours.
Our discussion had its ups and downs, but ultimately, we convinced Pahlavan that the war was not in the best interest of Herat or its people and would not benefit Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami either. I jokingly told Pahlavan that even if he took me, hostage, he would still lose the war, given the current military situation and capabilities. Of course, we granted Pahlavan several privileges, such as providing him with bodyguards. I then escorted him from his camp into the city of Herat. Pahlavan surrendered along with his weapons and equipment.
However, there was still military conflict in Shindand. Initially, the Shindand airport was under the control of Hizb-e-Islami Golbedin Hekmatyar. Still, it was later captured by the army forces of the Southwest region, led by Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. The core members of Hizb-e-Islami remained in the Shindand area until the fall of Herat to the Taliban in 1374. Still, they could not engage in combat with the military forces of the Southwest sector and only caused occasional disruptions. Shindand Airfield, Shindand Garrison, Shindand Seven Frontier Brigade, and Shindand Battalion-21 were all controlled by the Southwest military formations.
Sheesha Media: Can you explain the role and responsibilities of the Herat Military Commissariat?
General Azimi: The Herat Military Commissariat was essentially a counterpart to the Ministry of Defense, with similar duties and responsibilities. However, due to my close relationship with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and his trust in me, I was often placed in charge of critical military operations and delegations. I was referred to as the right-hand of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan during that time.
Sheesha Media: Was the relationship between the Ministry of Defense in Kabul and the Herat Army Corps regulated by you?
General Azimi: No, it was coordinated through the Dispatch and Administration Center. At that time, there was no close relationship between the Ministry of Defense and the Herat Army Corps. Herat preferred to avoid being under the direct control of Kabul. Decisions were mostly made through high-level consultations between Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, Ustad Shahid (the then president), and the National Heroe (Ahmad Shah Masoud), and then communicated to the troops by Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. The military corps did not directly report to the Ministry of Defense daily.
Ghazni Council and Herat Islamic Council
Sheesha Media: Let’s return to the topic of the Herat Islamic Council. As you previously mentioned, two influential and powerful commanders in the Helmand province, Ghafar Akhundzadeh, and Abdulwahid Baghrani, were reported to conflict with each other despite being Alizai. However, they were affiliated with different organizations. Ghafar Akhundzadeh was associated with Maulvi Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi’s organization, while Abdulwahid Baghrani was linked to Jamiat-e-Islami. You mentioned that Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan brought them to Herat and reconciled their differences. Can you tell us more about the reconciliation process and the history of the Herat Islamic Council?
General Azimi: When they were invited to Herat, Rasul Akhundzadeh, who was Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s older brother, was still alive. The younger brother, Nasim Akhundzadeh, played a significant role in establishing the power of his brothers in Helmand. He was a brilliant, capable, and powerful commander widely regarded as one of the most influential commanders in the region. I saw him in action during the Jihad against the Russians and can attest to his strength as a commander.
Following the reconciliation of Ghafar Akhundzadeh and Abdulwahid Baghrani through the mediation of Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan, Amir Sahib began to focus on larger projects for the country. He aimed to establish the Ghazni Council, bringing together the jihadist commanders from the southern and southwestern provinces. He invited Taj Muhammad Qaribaba, the governor of Ghazni, to Herat and asked him to organize a council of jihadist commanders from Herat, Ghor, Badghis, Farah, Ghazni, Kandahar, Zabul, Helmand, Uruzgan, Logar, Paktia, Paktika, and Wardak. Qaribaba agreed and made the necessary arrangements to hold the council in Ghazni. I traveled to Ghazni about 15 days before the Council was to take place to help facilitate its success.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us the year this Council took place?
General Azimi: It was held in 1372, but I don’t recall the exact date. Unfortunately, my notes were lost during recent events. At the Council in Ghazni, we met with the jihadist commanders from the provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Logar, and Wardak. At that time, parts of Wardak and Logar were under the control of Golbedin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami. Still, the jihadi commanders from the areas that were not under their control came to Ghazni and participated in the discussions.
Before the Ghazni council, we had already met with the jihadi commanders from Uruzgan, Zabul, Helmand, and Kandahar. The Council was attended by a delegation from the central government, which consisted of jihadi commanders from the northeastern and northern provinces such as Takhar, Badakhshan, Samangan, Saripol, and Balkh. In total, the Ghazni Council brought together jihadi commanders from fourteen provinces. If we consider the delegation from the central government, the Council included participation from jihadi commanders representing more than twenty provinces.
Sheesha Media: During the meeting, what was the role of Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan?
General Azimi: Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan served as the chairman and organizer of the Council. Dr. Jalil Shams and other prominent figures from Herat accompanied him. The governors from the previously mentioned provinces also attended, except for the governor of Kandahar, Gol Agha Shirzoi, who sent a message instead. Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, the commander of the Kandahar army at the time, also sent a message but did not attend in person.
The meeting aimed to bring peace to the country and end the ongoing war. The delegates decided that all parties in conflict should sit together and discuss, facilitated by the Ghazni Council. The council members committed to creating the necessary conditions for this to happen.
At the Ghazni Council of Jihadi Commanders, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan was the chairman and organizer, accompanied by Dr. Jalil Shams and other vital figures from Herat. The governors of the participating provinces, except for the governor of Kandahar, Gol Agha Shirzoi, attended the meeting. Instead, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, the commander of the Kandahar army at the time, sent a message.
The council’s main objective was to bring peace to the country and end the war. To achieve this, the participants agreed to facilitate dialogues and create a neutral force of 30,000 people from the 14 provinces whose commanders were present at the council. This was made possible due to the availability of weapons, equipment, and funding from Herat customs and the southwest region’s share of the banknotes printed abroad.
However, the decisions made at the Ghazni Council, particularly forming the neutral force, caused concerns among certain groups. Mahmoud Mistry had previously spoken about the need for an impartial peacekeeping force, which was perceived as a threat by the central government and other council opponents.
Sheesha Media: Are you referring to Mahmoud Mestri, the special representative of the then Secretary General of the United Nations in Afghanistan?
General Azimi: Yes, that’s correct. The opponents of the Council spread the notion that Mestri’s plan was not in favor of the Mujahideen but somewhat against them. The central government felt threatened by the Ghazni Council and its plan to form a neutral military force. Although not directly, the central government indirectly gave all its support to the opponents of the Council.
Herat was a secure city then, and many delegations visited there. Mestri visited periodically, delegations from the European community visited, and representatives from the government of Pakistan came to negotiate with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. General Nasirullah Babar, who was the Interior Minister of Pakistan at that time, also visited Herat several times. These visits and the initiative of the Ghazni Council raised suspicions about Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, and it was perceived that he had big plans to gain power across the country.
The central government was very concerned. We felt propaganda and movements against the South West Province Emirate were starting from there. I think the political initiatives in the southwest region at that time also worried Pakistan as they threatened the strategy Pakistan had for Afghanistan. Delegations from various provinces came to Herat to hold meetings.
I recall that Maulvi Abdul Latif Mansour, the Minister of Energy and Water under the Taliban regime, came to Herat from Paktia to represent his province and stayed there for about two months. The discussions in Herat were earnest, and all agreed that something needed to be done at a national level to end the war. After consultations with these delegations, they held a council in Herat to explore ways to end the war. This council was later named the “Islamic Council of Herat”.
The plan was for nine leaders, representing all the leaders of jihadi organizations, to participate in the Islamic Council of Herat. In addition, nine influential commanders and nine technocrats abroad were also to participate, totaling 27 participants. It was a groundbreaking moment in the history of Mujahideen as it marked the first time that technocrats had also found a political role in solving Afghanistan’s problems.
At the same time, there was a rumor that the United Nations attempted to create an international peacekeeping force of 30,000 and send it to Afghanistan to ensure a political solution. Although this was just a rumor, Mahmoud Mistry mentioned it as a possibility. However, this rumor and the decision of the Ghazni Council to create a neutral force of 30,000 non-partisan Mujahideen only added to the perception that Herat was aligned with an international project and working for the West, leading to propaganda that they were marginalizing the Mujahideen. The inclusion of technocrats only fueled these advertisements.
Later, Dr. Samad Hamed and Dr. Mohammad Yusuf, who served as chancellors in the first and second governments during King Zahir Shah’s reign, came to Herat and participated in the Islamic Council of Herat. Unfortunately, none of the nine jihadi leaders attended the session. I made several trips to Pakistan to convince some jihadi leaders to participate in the meeting. At the time, three jihadi leaders, Hazrat Sibghatullah Mujadadi, Pir Syed Ahmad Gilani, and Mr. Mohammad Asif Mohseni, had formed a neutral group of three and were meeting in Pakistan.
I went to talk to them, and Amir Sahib Ismail Khan also sent a delegation to Iran. Despite efforts to gather all the leaders to attend the Islamic Council of Herat and reach a decision, it was unsuccessful. Despite the obstacles, we made serious efforts to establish this platform and hoped it would yield results and bring everyone together. It is worth mentioning that a fatwa on Jihad was also issued.
Sheesha Media: Do you mean after the Coordination Council coup in Kabul?
General Azimi: Yes, after the Coordination Council coup. The coup put Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan in a challenging position, and the fatwa made it even more difficult. He realized that he had to either actively support the central government in the war or publicly express his support for them.
In my opinion, this was a mistake on Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan’s part. In an interview with the BBC, he stated that he had been waiting for a fatwa to clear the ranks of the Mujahideen and remove non-Mujahideen. His statements had an ideological tone and led other leaders to lose trust in the Islamic Council of Herat and question the neutrality of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and the southwest region.
Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan had intended to use the Herat Islamic Council as a platform for dialogue and as a neutral force. However, his interview changed the perception of the council, and people started to believe that Herat was aligned with the central government.
Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan gave an interview to avoid participating in the war and to redeem himself. He was in a problematic situation as Ustad Shahid Rabbani had sent Mr. Emad to Herat to inform him that pro-government groups in the west of the country wanted to go to Faryab and fight with the Dostum’s Movement using the areas under the control of the southwest region, and Herat should not prevent them.
Ismail Khan realized that if these groups were to go to Faryab and fight, their defeat would mean the defeat of the entire southwest region. In contrast, their success would lead to the division of the southwest region. If they were to win, a new power group would emerge in the southwest region, directly supported by the central government. This would significantly strengthen their position and break the monopoly of military power in the southwest region.
There was a rumor that if the groups supported by the central government attacked Faryab with the support of the southwest region, the Faryab Movement’s soldiers would surrender without fighting. We had a report that General Abdul Rahim, one of the leaders of the Faryab Movement, had contacted the central government and promised to surrender. In an attempt to redeem himself, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan gave an interview with the BBC instead of joining the war. However, this interview made the conditions more favorable for war than peace.
As the situation became chaotic, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan asked General Sahib Alauddin Khan and me to survey the battle lines of the Movement soldiers in Faryab. We went to Ghormach by helicopter and spoke with General Abdul Rahim and other people we knew. On our way back, I reported to Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan that Abdul Rahim would surrender with only one or two hundred men and could not surrender Faryab.
The central government had informed Amir Sahib that the surrender of General Abdul Rahim would lead to the submission of Faryab. General Sahib Alauddin Khan and I gave a formal report to Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. I also went to his house at night. I informed him privately that Faryab would not surrender without a fight and that the assessment of Abdul Rahim’s ability to submit Faryab was incorrect.
The issue was that the central government claimed to have groups in the southwest region that Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan needed to allow to participate in the war in Faryab. Mr. Syed Nurullah Emad, dispatched from Kabul, was prepared to lead these groups. If he won the battle, the military power in the southwest region would split into two groups. In contrast, the entire southwest region would suffer defeat if he lost.
I recall that Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan made efforts and excuses so that no one from the area under his control would go to Faryab to fight. For instance, he gave reasons to the central government, such as winter, the roads being closed, the weather being unfavorable, the Kotel Sabzek being impassable, and they had to wait until spring. However, the center did not agree, and we had to engage in battle with the Faryab movement, causing us to lose our neutrality and no longer claim as neutral.
The Islamic Council of Herat lost political significance following the Faryab war, and none of the jihadi leaders participated. As previously stated, a group of technocratic patriots from Europe and jihadi commanders from various provinces arrived in Herat, except for the Eastern Jihadi Council. The Eastern Jihadi Council did not send a representative to the Herat Islamic Council but instead sent representatives to the Ghazni Council. Some individuals from Jalalabad came, but they held no power or authority in the Eastern Jihadi Council.
The Islamic Council of Herat held a meeting. I cannot recall the exact date. (It was the 28th of Saratan, 1373 – SM). Master Rabbani also arrived in Herat on the second day of the meeting. During the council, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan declared his support for the current government. Mr. Jalil Shams and several high-ranking officials from the Southwest region believed that we should maintain our political neutrality and continue working toward peace in the country without violating the principle of neutrality. However, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan felt he was in a difficult situation and had to declare his support for the government.
Of course, the government’s future was in doubt, as determined by the Council of Ahl al-Hal and Eqd, and it required support from various groups. (The decision of the Council of Ahl al-Hal and Eqd was made on the 9th of Jadi 1371 and extended the leadership of Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani for two years – SM). Amir Sahib planned to give legitimacy to the government and send a delegation to Kabul to unite all the leaders and facilitate negotiations to end the war. However, these two objectives were not met. Dr. Yusuf Khan, Samad Hamed, the grandson of Shah Amanullah Khan, and other influential figures from the scientific and political communities who attended the Islamic Council of Herat all left Herat disappointed, and the council failed to achieve its goals. The southwest region was perceived as being a part of the government.
The book written by British journalist Sandigal about Shadarwan Ahmad Shah Massoud mentions a plan to transfer power to Samad Hamid as the president and head of a transitional government. This plan was to hold a national and competitive election to end the war. However, it is unclear whether this plan was discussed during the Islamic Council of Herat or whether those present had the same idea. What do you know about it?
General Azimi: The issue was previously discussed. However, it was not discussed in the council. The situation had become such that Jamiat Islami Afghanistan had expectations from Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, considered one of the prominent figures of the party and the Amir of the Southwest region. He was even considered the third person at the party.
They stated that Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, who controls several provinces, has access to heavy weapons, an air force, air transport, and money. They believed security was established in the areas under his control. On the other hand, in Kabul, people struggled to bring oil from four mills to their homes. Despite this, they still firmly supported the military government, hoping to end the war.
This was the expectation from Kabul. Meanwhile, Herat believed that Kabul could not handle the political situation properly and should follow Herat’s example and use their experience to create favorable conditions for peace. Kabul argued based on its status, and Herat argued based on experiences. These opposing arguments indirectly pitted Kabul and Herat against each other.
The emergence of the Taliban in Kandahar
Shisha Media: You mentioned that, apart from these conflicting arguments, the councils of Ghazni and Herat also widened the gap between the southwest region and Kabul. Following the convening of the Herat Islamic Council and the ongoing conflict between Kabul and Herat, we are seeing the rise of a well-organized militant group comprised of Taliban, mullahs, maulvis, and religious school teachers in Kandahar, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, known as the Taliban movement.
This force originated from the Miwand district of Kandahar, from the “Sangisar” area, from a village named “Haji Ibrahim,” where Mullah Muhammad Omar served as the imam of a mosque and a teacher of a religious school for some of the Taliban. According to documented reports and testimonies, their first act was to extort money from travelers at several checkpoints, or “Pathaks,” along the Kandahar-Herat highway near the Miwand district. They later conquered these checkpoints and gained control of some roads and the surrounding area.
It is noteworthy that one of the first supporters of this movement was Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, the commander of the Kandahar Army Corps. Mullah Naqibullah Akhund also served as the provincial governor of Jamiat-e-Islami in Kandahar. Due to his party affiliation, he likely had strong connections with Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan. Did you receive any information at the time in Herat about a group of mullahs and religious school students who rose against the armed forces in Kandahar and gained control of part of the Kandahar-Herat highway? Was the commander of the Kandahar Army Corps also a supporter of this group, or did you find out about this event more recently?
General Azimi: Allow me to revisit the Ghazni Council once more. My current impression is that the Ghazni Council had raised significant concerns for Pakistan. It is my understanding that they had concluded that this Council and the process to be initiated by it posed a significant threat to Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the existing differences and behind-the-scenes confrontations between Kabul and Herat had, at times, manifested as adverse rivalries.
The commanders in Kandahar had a strained relationship with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. Although Gol Agha Jan Shirzoi visited Herat to participate in the Islamic Council, he, too, had a problematic relationship with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. In contrast, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund had more warm relations with Kabul than Herat. Shirzoi and Mullah Naqibullah Akhund believed that the central leadership in the southwest was always in Kandahar and the Durrani axis. This is why they were unhappy with the rise of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. Mullah Naqibullah Akhund did not attend the Herat Islamic Council. Instead, he only sent his representative a message.
We were unaware of when the Taliban movement started in the Miwand district, but we found out when they ousted the “Pathak”. We discovered that Mullah Naqibullah Akhund supported them, not openly but indirectly and covertly. At the time, there were three powers in Kandahar: Mullah Naqibullah Akhund was from Jamiat-e-Islami, Gol Agha Jan Shirzoi was from Mahaz Melli, and Haji Sarkateb was from Hezb-e-Islami Golbedin Hekmatyar. Gol Agha Jan Shirzoi had gathered moderate Duranis who supported the former Shah around him.
Mullah Naqibullah Akhand and Gol Agha Jan Shirzoi wanted to remove Haji Sarkateb from power. However, Shirzoi was unwilling to join the battle alongside Mullah Naqibullah Akhund. As a result, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund couldn’t get rid of Haji Sarkateb on his own. This desire to neutralize Sarkateb and take him out of power was one of the reasons for Mullah Naqibullah Akhund’s alliance with the emerging Taliban. Thus, in Kandahar, the Taliban faced opposition from three rival groups.
According to our information, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund initially made a personal decision to cooperate with the Taliban and then informed Kabul of his decision. Upon receiving this information, the central government in Kabul realized that supporting the Taliban movement was in their best interest. Additionally, it is known that the people of Kandahar suffered from immense pressure due to the arbitrary rule of various forces.
At that time, when you passed through Helmand and entered Kandahar, you had to pay at least one hundred “Patak”, and if you did not pay, you would not survive. This pressure was more than people could bear. There was no order and security. There was a wide rumor that there was a lot of rape of young boys, the people’s sons were not safe, and it was even heard that some commanders of Kandahar had married the boys. Of course, I had not seen the boy’s marriage. For this reason, I cannot deny or confirm it. But there were a lot of scams, “small commander” and “Big commander”, and extortion from people and passengers.
The Taliban, who had emerged with the slogan of removing the Pataks, disarming arbitrary and corrupt forces, disarming the ordinary people, providing security, and implementing Sharia, were seriously supported by the people of Kandahar. As I have written in my book, the common people of Kandahar thought of them as their savior angels who came to put an end to the pressure, insecurity, disorder, murder, extortion, and arbitrariness.
Naturally, the ordinary citizens of Kandahar held a deep-seated hatred towards the Mujahideen in their province, particularly towards those in power. As a result, the leadership in Kabul believed that if the Taliban were to take control of Kandahar, they could form a powerful alliance to combat Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami and the Hezbi Wahdati Islami as they spread to Ghazni and Kabul. Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Kabul had reached a stalemate, with neither side possessing sufficient military strength to overpower the other. This prompted Kabul Government to consider the prospect of strengthening the Taliban to serve their interests.
Mullah Naqibullah Akhund and Gol Agha Jan Shirzoi joined forces in endorsing the Taliban. However, in the early stages, the Taliban encountered resistance from Haji Sarkateb, who possessed formidable defensive capabilities. As a result, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund reached out to both Kabul and us for increased support to ensure the Taliban’s victory over Haji Sarkateb and their emergence as a new power. I recall President Abdulwahid Baghrani’s initial request for our support of the Taliban.
It is worth noting that the issue of Ghaljayi and Durrani was also discussed during this time. Mullah Naqibullah Akhund and Mr. Shirzoi were Durrani, while Haji Sarkateb was Ghaljayi. However, Herat backed the war against Sarkateb, in which the Taliban played a key role. Due to its political affiliation with Mullah Naqibullah Akhund and the encouragement of Raies Abdulwahid Baghrani, Heart supported the Taliban. Herat even urged Ghafar Akhundzadah of Helmand to support the Taliban, which enabled them to defeat Haji Sarkateb. Following his defeat, Raies Abdulwahid Baghrani presented the Taliban with a plan and invited them to Helmand, which they accepted.
Sheesha Media: We will discuss Helmand later. As you mentioned, there were three significant commanders in Kandahar, along with the arbitrary forces that the Taliban initially clashed with during their ascent. One of the three commanders was Mullah Naqibullah Akhund Alkozi, while the second was Gol Agha Shirzoi, a Barakzai who willingly abandoned the Taliban. The third person was Haji Sarkateb Ghaljayi, who held power in Spinboldak, a crucial border point and source of revenue.
According to your statement, the Taliban captured Spinboldak, a strategic town, with the help of Herat, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, Gol Agha Shirzoi, Raies Abdul Wahid Baghrani, and Kabul. This event garnered international attention as it marked the emergence of the Taliban in world media. Capturing the crucial border town of Spinboldak was a significant milestone for the Taliban.
The Taliban seized control of Spinboldak on October 10, 1994. Approximately ten days later, a convoy of Pakistani commercial trucks carrying medical supplies, linen, and cement, reportedly arrived in Chaman and Boldak from Quetta en route to Turkmenistan via Herat. Notably, General Nasirullah Babar, the former Interior Minister of Pakistan, purportedly visited Herat during this period.
Apparently, during one of these trips, transporting this convoy from Herat was arranged with the local authorities, and Colonel Imam of the Pakistani Consulate General in Herat accompanied the convoy. However, when the Pakistani commercial convoy reached Kandahar on the same day, it was halted by the armed forces of another renowned commander, Amer Lali, who belonged to the Populzai tribe. You did not mention his details previously.
Subsequently, Amer Lali gave an interview with the BBC Pashto section or Voice of America Pashto. He claimed that the Taliban was a creation of Pakistan and that the profits from the commercial convoy were also going to them. He declared he would not abandon the convoy until Pakistan stopped supporting the Taliban. Later, the Taliban attacked and defeated him, leading to their capture of Kandahar. Did you know about the incident involving the convoy and Amer Lali’s stance through media reports, or did you already know of it? Was Amer Lali in contact with Herat?
General Azimi: Colonel Imam, the Consul General of Pakistan in Herat then, had coordinated the convoy’s transit with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. However, we learned the news of the caravan’s stoppage through the Pashto section of the BBC’s airwaves from Amer Lali. Communication was difficult then, and it took a long for news to reach Herat from Kandahar. Despite Amer Lali not being in contact with us, he joined and fought alongside us against the Taliban after being defeated by them and coming to Herat until its fall.
Sheesha Media: What was the nature of Amer Lali’s relationship with Mullah Naqibullah Akhund?
General Azimi: According to the information available then, their relationship was not good, but they managed it in a way that prevented military conflicts. After Amer Lali’s defeat, he went to Ghafar Akhundzadeh in Helmand before coming to us via Ghor Road. Amer Lali’s opposition was the first serious challenge to the Taliban after the defeat of Sarkateb in Kandahar. This conflict was the first to be reported to the media, raising the issue of Pakistan’s involvement.
Sheesha Media: After Amer Lali’s defeat, the Taliban seized control of Kandahar province’s capital on November 2 or 3, 1994, or in the first few days of that month. They captured the Kandahar Army Corps, Kandahar Airfield, Kandahar Province building, Kandahar Mustofiat, and all other essential facilities, becoming the dominant force in the province. The city of Kandahar was previously under the military control of Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, who left, allowing the Taliban to take over. Given Mullah Naqibullah Akhund’s contact with Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan, What was the story of Kandahar falling into the hands of the Taliban?
General Azimi: We knew that Mullah Naqibullah Akhund coordinated with the central government in Kabul and handed over control of Kandahar to the Taliban with their support. Mullah Naqibullah Akhund had limited contact with Herat and primarily coordinated with Kabul. Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan supported the coordination between Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, Kabul, and the Taliban. He did not seem to be against the transfer of power in Kandahar to the Taliban. Although the relationship between Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and the central government was strained and problematic, both maintained normal relations to avoid giving propaganda tools to rivals. While Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan was upset about the central government’s attempts to undermine him, he did not seem to be unhappy about the situation in Kandahar.
Ghafar Akhundzadeh and Abdulvaheed Baghrani
Sheesha Media: Well, now let’s talk about the issue of Helmand. Can you provide information on the situation in Helmand when the Taliban took control of Kandahar? Specifically, can you explain the circumstances surrounding Abdul Wahid Baghrani, a commander of Jamiat-e-Islami in Helmand, inviting the Taliban to come to Helmand? Additionally, it has been reported that Ghafar Akhundzadeh, the governor of Helmand at the time and a competitor of Abdul Wahid Baghrani, also did not oppose the Taliban’s arrival. Could you shed more light on this?
General Azimi: First, I want to say one more thing. A delegation headed by General Nasirullah Babar visited Herat after the Taliban took control of Kandahar. During this visit, Nasirullah Babar had a detailed conversation with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, and I was present during the negotiation. Nasirullah Babar argued that the Taliban’s control over Kandahar was a positive development and that the previous rulers were unruly people who discredited Jihad. He urged unity and coordination between Herat, Kandahar, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, and the Taliban to ensure security, trade, and peace throughout Afghanistan.
Babar expressed that both the people of Afghanistan and the countries in the region viewed Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan and the Taliban positively as forces that can provide security. However, Herat’s National Security Directorate later suspected that Babar and other Pakistani officials traveled by land from Kandahar to Herat to inspect routes and military fortifications, potentially to help conquer of the Taliban in the future. Herat’s national security perception was that Babar’s trip was mostly geared toward military objectives.
Now turning to your question, which is not entirely unrelated to Babur’s journey. Abdul Wahid Baghrani, a cunning individual, attempted to eliminate all powerful rivals, even if they were from his own Alizai tribe. Both Ghafar Akhundzadeh and Abdul Wahid Baghrani were Alizai, but Baghrani sought dominance and did not want any competitors in his sphere of influence. It is worth mentioning that Abdul Wahid was a highly fanatic individual when it came to language.
Raies Abdul Wahid had ties with Kabul and Helmand due to their significant population. We had reports that he sent a message to the Taliban, stating that their dominance over Kandahar was insufficient and they should aim to capture the entire area of “Lay Kandahar.” His support for the Taliban was motivated by Pashtunism.
The Taliban employed a tactical approach, sending a message to the dominant forces in Helmand, including Ghafar Akhandzadeh, stating that since Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul were part of Kandahar province, the administrative section of Helmand province should be handed over to them. In the meantime, the military section would remain under the responsibility of Ghafar Akhandzadeh. Ghafar Akhandzadeh agreed to the arrangement, understanding that the Taliban would take control of the administrative department, but the military department would remain under his control.
We learned later that the agreement between the Taliban and Mullah Naqibullah Akhund was similar, with the understanding that the Taliban would assume administrative control over Kandahar while Mullah Naqibullah Akhund would maintain his position in the army. However, in reality, the Taliban disarmed him. The same arrangement was agreed upon with Ghafar Akhundzadeh, who was put in a position where he had to accept either the proposal of the Taliban and its leader Abdulqahid Baghrani or engage in combat.
Realizing that engaging in war with the Taliban without air support would not be in his favor, Akhundzadeh accepted the Taliban’s offer. It is worth noting that Hizb-e-Islami had some powerful commanders in Helmand, but Ghafarakhandzadeh did not object to the Taliban’s disarming them, and they eventually reached an agreement. Ghafar Akhundzadeh and his forces retreated to Musa Qala while the Taliban took control of Lashkargah.
With the help of Abdulwahid Bagrani and Ghafar Akhundzadeh, the Taliban defeated Hizb-e-Islami in Helmand. However, after the victory, the Taliban reneged on their agreement with Ghafar Akhundzadeh and demanded that he surrender his weapons. With no other choice, Ghafar Akhundzadeh decided to fight back against the Taliban. He requested military assistance from Herat in the war against the Taliban, and on the same day of the conflict, he asked Herat to bomb the Taliban’s positions.
Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan presented Mahmoud Mistry’s presence to Ghafar Akhundzadeh as an expression of excuse, conveying that Herat did not wish to offer support to him. Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan held a negative opinion of Ghafar Akhundzadeh. He hoped for the military power of Jamiat Ulama or the organization of Maulvi Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi to diminish in Helmand gradually. The intention was not for it to vanish entirely but to dwindle progressively.
During meetings with Herat, Ghafar Akhundzadeh displayed a sense of entitlement by asserting that the entire military power of Afghanistan belonged to him and his supporters in Helmand. He frequently spoke about pride and arrogance, which did not sit well with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. As the General Commander of the southwest region, Amir Sahib expected Helmand to comply with his authority, as it was a part of the region. However, Ghafar Akhundzadeh did not exhibit sufficient obedience, and Amir Sahib perceived his forces as disorganized and unable to maintain security in Helmand.
Amir Sahib sought to reestablish his authority over Ghafar Akhundzadeh, although he acknowledged that this would not be an easy feat. Nevertheless, Ghafar Akhundzadeh was subsequently ousted from the battlefield by the Taliban in less than 24 hours.
Later, we discovered that Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s swift defeat was due to the ethnic maneuvers of Abdul Wahid Baghrani, in addition to the religious influence of the Taliban. Consequently, he could not hold out for more than 48 hours before he was forced to flee to Ghor. From there, Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan arranged his transfer to Herat. It’s worth noting that Amer Lali and Commander Khan Mohammad Khan joined forces with Ghafar Akhundzadeh in a failed attempt to resist the emerging Taliban. Despite their efforts, Herat did not lend them support.
Ostad Halim, another prominent commander from Kandahar, also joined Ghafar Akhundzadeh. Akhundzadeh had amassed a considerable force and anticipated support from Herat, but his hopes were dashed due to the lack of assistance. As a result, all these commanders, who were deeply unpopular with the locals in Kandahar, fled to Herat, which marked the start of our conflict with the Taliban.
In their initial conversation, the Taliban demanded that Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan hand over all the Kandahari commanders and their men to be tried. When Herat declined this request, the Taliban obtained the pretext they needed to wage war against the southwest region.
Sheesha Media: As you explained, there was an indirect alignment between Emir Muhammad Ismail Khan, the Taliban, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, Raies Abdul Wahid Bagrani, and Kabul. The fact that Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan did not support Ghafar Akhundzadeh and the commanders of Kandahar meant that he preferred the Taliban. Can you explain why Mohammad Ismail Khan, who previously didn’t help the commanders of Kandahar and Helmand and indirectly supported the Taliban, later accepted these same commanders as refugees in Herat, despite their role in causing the people of Kandahar to support the Taliban?
General Azimi: There was a significant difference in the level of support for the Taliban between Kabul and Herat. Emir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan assessed the situation in the areas under his control. He supported the Taliban to prevent any harm to those areas, while Kabul’s support for the Taliban was calculated and significant at the time.
The commanders from Kandahar were able to come to Herat with the help of Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s mediation. Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan believed that having these individuals as allies could be helpful in case of a crisis. However, after the Taliban took over Helmand, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan realized that this group had become a significant threat and could potentially attack Herat at any moment, contrary to their initial expectations.
When the Taliban broke their agreement with Ghafar Akhundzadeh, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan anticipated that a military conflict with the Taliban was probable in the future. As a result, he sought to have the Kandahar and Helmand commanders on his side. Meanwhile, Herat’s National Security Directorate informed Amir Sahib after Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s defeat that the Taliban had sufficient ground forces, equipment, and motivation to attack Herat, with their only obstacle being the lack of air force.
In Herat, our analysis indicated that the Taliban attempted to acquire air power before breaking through Kabul’s defense lines. At that time, the nearest airfield that the Taliban could potentially utilize was Shindand Air Base. Bagram and Mazar were out of their reach, and the number of operable warplanes at the Kandahar airport was inadequate. This made us feel exposed and vulnerable, given that Shindand also had its weaknesses.
Most of the tribes residing along the route from Shindand to Helmand are Pashtuns, and it was apparent that these tribes would support the Taliban in any conflict between them and us. Pashtuns also reside in Shindand, except for the “Chaharmahal” area, which happens to be the birthplace of Amirsaheb Mohammad Ismail Khan. Consequently, we were exposed to and susceptible to Shindand.
Furthermore, we were unsuccessful in obtaining control over Shindand during our reign in Herat, mainly because of the presence of a Hizb-e-Islami force, which further exposed us. As a result, we concluded that it was vital to support the anti-Taliban commanders in Kandahar and Helmand based on our reasoning. However, Kabul had substantial pressure on Herat to have these commanders align with them.
Over time, Kabul became increasingly convinced that the Taliban would inevitably conflict with the government following their expulsion of Hizb-e-Islami and Hizb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami from the political arena. Thus, it was deemed necessary for them to possess the military capabilities of the Kandahari and Helmandis, who opposed the Taliban. Based on the information that I have, this was indeed the case.
Accompanying Taliban leaders on their trip to Kabul
Sheesha Media: Excellent. Following the Taliban’s takeover of Helmand, they swiftly gained control of Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni. Shortly after that, they seized Maidanshahr and Logar. During this period, direct negotiations between the Taliban and Emir Mohammad Ismail Khan took place. Could you provide information on the location of the first negotiation, the representative(s) from the Taliban, and the topic(s) discussed during the meeting?
General Azimi: Initially, the Taliban had sent two representatives to assist with arrangements for a more sizeable and proficient delegation. Subsequently, a significantly larger group of Taliban leaders and commanders, excluding Mullah Muhammad Omar Akhund, traveled to Herat for the meeting.
I recall attending a meeting where the Taliban told Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan that he was a highly respected individual who prioritized his people’s well-being and was a formidable fighter for the cause. They asked Amir Saheb to collaborate with them. The objective was to eliminate disruptive elements such as Dostum and Hekmatyar, instigating disorder, corruption, and other irresponsible behavior. The plan involved collecting all weapons throughout Afghanistan, conducting a comprehensive disarmament campaign, and establishing security across the entire country, paving the way for implementing Sharia law.
The Taliban delegation did not raise the issue of removing Ustad Rabbani from his leadership position. They expressed their acceptance of Ustad Rabbani’s leadership. In response, Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan advised the delegation to communicate directly with Ustad Rabbani in Kabul. He further stated that whatever decision they reach with him, the South-West region would comply.
Undoubtedly, at that time, the Taliban were highly disorganized and did not adhere to normal behavior. They not only threw snuff into Amir Sahib’s office but also spat on it, which greatly discomforted him. Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan was known for his disciplined personality and strong affinity for military discipline. Additionally, as Herat is a city with a rich cultural heritage, he was further upset by the Taliban’s uncivilized behavior.
Amir Sahib tasked me with escorting the Taliban leaders to Ustad Shahid in Kabul. The Taliban leaders initially departed from Herat and traveled to Kandahar to seek permission from their leadership to travel to Kabul. Subsequently, a second delegation of 14 to 16 individuals came to Herat. I was responsible for accompanying them to Kabul. Amir Sahib arranged the group, and I led them to Kabul.
Sheesha Media: Can you please provide the names of the individuals you recall? Who were the 14 people you are referring to?
General Azimi: Maulvi Khairullah Khairkhah was the Minister of Information and Culture for the Taliban at the time. The following person was Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, who later became the head of the Taliban cabinet but has since passed away. During the delegation, Mullah Mohammad Rabbani was also the head. I don’t recall the names of the other members of the board now.
Back then, the situation did not appear serious. No one could have imagined it would eventually become what it is today. In Herat, it was common for delegations to come and go every day. The reason was that there was air transportation available. Various delegations were sent from Herat to Kabul, and many delegations from Kabul came to travel to Iran or other destinations, which we facilitated through air transportation.
During that time, I had not realized that accompanying the Taliban to Kabul would eventually become a significant historical event. The transportation significance of Herat had grown due to the government’s lack of control over Mazar and the blockage of Pakistan’s road to Kabul.
Regardless, I escorted the Taliban delegation to Kabul and arranged their stay at the Intercontinental Hotel. During my time in Kabul with them, which lasted for 14 days, I participated in multiple meetings between Taliban leaders and Ustad Rabbani before finally returning to Herat.
I recall that during our time in Kabul, the month of Ramadan arrived, and for several consecutive nights, I witnessed the Taliban leaders praying Taraweeh behind Ustad Rabbani. The conversations between the Taliban and Ustad Rabbani centered on coordinating the government and Taliban forces around Kabul, eliminating threats in the vicinity of Kabul, securing financial aid from Kabul for the Taliban, and establishing a collaborative and agreeable political future for Afghanistan between both sides.
The discussions primarily revolved around these matters, and the Taliban demonstrated their acceptance of Ustad Rabbani’s leadership. As a gesture of goodwill, Ustad Rabbani gave the Taliban 300 million Afghanis. Two members of the Taliban accompanied me back to Herat and brought the same amount of money with them. Amir Sahib then dispatched these two individuals to Kandahar with the 300 million Afghanis, using a helicopter as a means of transportation.
Sheesha Media: Did the Taliban ever question Ustad Rabbani’s leadership in these negotiations?
General Azimi: No, they did not question his leadership. The negotiations mainly focused on issues such as money, peace, implementing Sharia law, removing obstacles from roads, collecting taxes, removing rebellious and corrupt individuals, and discussing disarmament.
Sheesha Media: During your time in Kabul with the Taliban delegation, did they meet with the late Ahmad Shah Massoud?
General Azimi: While I was in Kabul with them, they did not meet him. I was there to facilitate their transportation and logistics and stayed with them for some time to avoid offending them. However, I was not monitoring their activities closely, so I don’t know if they met with Massoud after my departure.
Sheesha Media: Was Taraweeh prayer recited in the citadel behind the president’s head?
General Azimi: No, Tarawih was not recited in the citadel. The prayer was held at the Intercontinental hotel, where Ustad would lead the prayer, and the Taliban leaders would follow.
The first conflict between the Taliban and the forces of Mohammad Ismail Khan
Sheesha Media: At what point did you realize that the Taliban posed a serious military threat and that preparations for defense were necessary, given the close relations between Kabul, Herat, and the Taliban?
General Azimi: Following the Taliban’s return from their trip, they visited Herat before heading to Kandahar. At this time, Mullah Naqibullah Akhund, fearful of the Taliban, fled to Ghor. Shortly after their arrival, the Taliban requested that Herat surrender all Helmandis and Kandaharis to the Taliban forces. We had reports that Taliban forces had gathered in Helmand for war. When we saw these developments, we realized the situation’s gravity and began preparing for defense.
We had received comprehensive information from Helmand, specifically from the Mujahideen of the Haraki Inqilabi Islami and those with a history of attachment with Jamiai Islami, including a person named Moalem Shahwali, who was in direct contact with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. Based on this intelligence, we learned that the Taliban had amassed their forces in the Sanglan hills area near Gershk.
At that point, the military organization of the southwest region made the decision to prepare for defense and address the issue. As a result, Herat led a force of 25,000 to 30,000 individuals toward the Sanglan hills. It was the first time since the fall of Dr. Najib’s government that we had deployed such a massive force, making it an unprecedented move.
Our forces were composed of units from the Herat Army Corps, the Herat Four Armored Forces, the 17th Herat Division, the Herat Jihadi Order Group, as well as troops from the 21st Division, the 5th and 7th Border Brigades of Shindand and Herat, and the forces of units stationed in Nimroz and Farah. Additionally, formations of the Jihadi Order in Farah and Nimroz, as well as the forces of Kandahari and Helmandi commanders who had arrived in Herat after the Taliban’s capture of their provinces, were also present.
In addition, we had armed a group of Uzbeks who were opposing General Dostum in Herat, some of whom were part of the same force deployed in Sanglan. As previously mentioned, the total number of individuals in the deployed force was 30,000. The forces were equipped with top-of-the-line gear, and General Sahib Alauddin Khan was appointed as the chief commander. The Taliban was initially impressed with the appearance and equipment of these forces, as well as the leadership of a skilled and powerful commander at the helm.
Sheesha Media: Was General Alauddin Khan the deputy commander of the Herat Army Corps?
General Azimi: No, he was the military deputy of Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan during the years of Jihad and after the victory. At the same time, he held the position of commander of the 17th Division of Herat. The army corps commander was Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, while the Deputy Commander of the Army Corps was General Azizullah Khan.
The defeat of Sanglan defense line
Sheesha Media: In your book, you mentioned that the same force, better equipped and staffed, became partly trapped during a Taliban attack in the month of Hoot in 1373. Can you elaborate on what happened?
General Azimi: Well, the force had an awe-inspiring and well-organized appearance that caught the attention of onlookers. One end of the caravan could be seen from here, while the other was several kilometers away, which created a sense of strength and unity. However, our forces were very fragile regarding military command and control.
While we had organized units like the 85th Landing Unit in Herat that were disciplined and wore military uniforms, we also had the 71 Farah Sect, which lacked military discipline. Its members were present in the camp and duty stations with beards, shirts, turbans, and slippers, which posed a problem.
Our additional challenge was that the separate units in the southwest region had never conducted collaborative training and exercises to prepare themselves for actual combat. If these forces had engaged in joint training exercises in the past, they would have been better equipped to work together effectively in a real war. Unfortunately, the lack of prior joint military exercises among our forces posed a problem.
In contrast, we did not recognize the Taliban as a sophisticated or compelling military force. Their conquests in and around Kabul, Kandahar, and Helmand were not the result of intense and decisive battles. We characterized Kandahar’s situation as a fragmented compromise and a drawn-out war. In Helmand, the Taliban secured victory through trickery and maneuvering, and the Hizb-e-Islami forces withdrew from their positions around Kabul. The Taliban had no track record of winning military battles through clear-cut and resolute means.
Consequently, we in the military units stationed in the southwest area had assessed the military prowess of the Taliban to be feeble. We believed that the Taliban lacked the necessary strength and that our forces in the region, despite their vulnerabilities and inconsistencies, could defend against them. The appearance of the military forces had instilled a misguided sense of pride that these 30,000 troops could clear the area all the way from Helmand to the outskirts of Kabul.
As I mentioned earlier, General Nasirullah Babar conducted a military evaluation of the territories between Helmand and Shindand during his visit to Herat. This assessment had revealed a more severe threat posed by the Taliban. Subsequently, after our forces had moved into Sanglan, the Taliban launched an attack under darkness.
During their attack, the Taliban employed a military tactic known as a suicide attack or “Askari” in local military jargon. No one in the southwest area had anticipated that the Taliban would possess the capability to employ such tactics.
The Taliban managed to carry out a cut or breach within our forces. As I mentioned earlier, the commanders of our troops underestimated the capabilities of the Taliban and failed to take appropriate measures. They did not think to construct defensive trenches, consolidate their positions, or establish communication ditches. Moreover, they did not fortify vulnerable areas by laying mines or setting up barbed wire. In short, we did not take any precautions.
Despite the availability of resources, the enemy’s weakness had led to a lack of vigilance. Everyone who arrived sought shelter under the shade as the weather was hot. The commanders had not taken adequate measures to fortify the area against possible attacks.
In the dead of night, the Taliban launched a surprise attack catching everyone off guard. During the attack, the insurgents maneuvered themselves to the rear of the hall occupied by the commanding officer in charge of the operation. Typically, such military operations involve a designated meeting space where the commander communicates with troops on the ground and directs overall strategy.
The Taliban executed a military operation using suicide tactics to attack our forces. They initially attacked our troops from one point, flanked, and quickly made their way to the rear of the hall occupied by General Sahib Alauddin Khan. The attack occurred at the location where the troops of the 85th Herat Airborne Regiment were stationed. This regiment was our most organized force, but unfortunately, a significant number of its personnel were captured during the attack. It was later revealed that over 1,500 people were taken captive that fateful night.
Our forces were facing significant challenges. On the one hand, they had no coordination and experience in joint warfare, causing them to be scattered in separate units. On the other hand, the Taliban had deployed their most resolute fighters to execute the operation. In addition, the Taliban insurgents had tied the sides of their shirts, using them as a makeshift shield during the attack. They took advantage of the cover of darkness by launching the operation in the middle of the night.
Upon entering our forces, the Taliban identified their members by their distinctive tied shirts. When they encountered our troops, they called out to them in Pashto, “D Akhundzadeh Sahib Mojahedin Yu”. (We are Akhundzadeh Sahib’s Mujahideen.) This strategy confused the entire southwest area forces, who were caught off guard and immobilized for a short period. Our soldiers found it challenging to differentiate between actual Taliban fighters and friendly soldiers, such as Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s Mujahideen, Amerlali, Commander Khan Mohammad Khan, or Ustad Haleem.
The uniforms and physical appearance of these commanders and the Taliban were virtually indistinguishable, contributing to the confusion among our troops. Our soldiers were not familiar with the tactic of identifying the Taliban fighters by their tied shirts. As a result, there was widespread chaos and uncertainty across all parts and sub-units of our forces. The ensuing disorder led to the capture and loss of our troops, and the Taliban seized a significant amount of valuable military equipment in the southwest area.
The failure of the southwest area forces and the tactical victory of the Taliban had a dual effect. Firstly, it bolstered the self-assurance of the Taliban, and secondly, it fueled their propaganda campaign. The Taliban claimed that their fighters wore a copy of the Quran around their necks and that when struck by a bullet, the Quran would deflect it and protect the wearer while harming the enemy. The Taliban propagated this narrative to create a sense of fear and despair among our troops and shatter our personnel’s morale.
Another critical issue was that General Sahib Alauddin Khan sustained injuries during the attack. On the second night of the war, I visited the front lines. I learned that due to General Khan’s incapacity, Amir Sahib Ismail Khan had assumed the responsibility of commanding the defense line.
In the first few hours of my arrival, I noticed that the morale of our personnel had been severely damaged. Even our well-educated personnel seemed to believe the propaganda propagated by the Taliban about wearing copies of the Quran around their necks to deflect bullets. This belief had eroded our troops’ morale, motivation, and discipline, rendering them unable to fight effectively.
Alauddin Khan, a highly influential three-star general in the military units of the southwest, made significant efforts to address these shortcomings. He was a courageous man, and his injury did not diminish his resolve to address the weakness in public morale. The bullet struck him in the left chest, and it was initially believed that the probability of his survival was low.
One night following the attack and hospitalization of General Alauddin Khan, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan convened a decision-making meeting with all the Jihadi commanders in Herat, irrespective of their organizational affiliation. Initially, many of these commanders had learned about the movement of forces to Sanglan to defend against a possible Taliban attack through local television broadcasts without prior consultation. However, that night, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan called for an emergency meeting to jointly decide on how to defend Herat and develop a solution, given that the areas under the control of the southwest area were on the brink of total collapse.
During the meeting, we decided that all the commanders would gather at the Meydanche Army Field the next day and fly to the front line with Amir Sahib. The following day, I arrived at Maidanche at six in the morning, accompanied by General Qatali. Other commanders, including General Sahib Afzali, General Sahib Majidi, Haji Basir Khan Ghoriani, and the head of Herat National Security, arrived a bit later. Amir Sahib and I were flown to the first line in the first helicopter, while the other commanders arrived later.
Amir Sahib Ismail Khan took charge of the situation and rallied the remaining forces to defend against the Taliban attack. He called for an emergency meeting with all the Jihadi commanders in Herat, and they decided to fly to the front line and work together to defend against the Taliban. General Sahib Alauddin Khan was sent to India for medical treatment, and General Sahib Jilani took over the command of the front line after Khan’s injury. The forces retreated to a defensive position, and when Amir Sahib arrived, he took command and utilized artillery and air force to regain control.
We arrived at our desired destination, but despite our efforts to advance, we could not locate Taleb. Before commencing the operation, we had established control over the Taliban’s position both from the air and the ground. However, as we progressed, Taleb remained elusive. We continued to press forward but eventually realized that we had returned to our camp.
Upon arriving at the camp, we found it deserted, and communication had been severed. After some time, we restored contact and learned that our defensive forces had withdrawn as they were being sought after by Taleb. Meanwhile, our mission was to locate Taleb and pursue them to accomplish our objective.
I neglected to mention that during the operation, General Jalil Farah, who held the rank of general at the time, was present alongside myself and General Sahib Jilani. However, later that evening, General Farah surrendered to the Taliban. General Sahib parted ways with us, stating that he had some work to attend to in Farah, and instructed us to proceed without him.
It was within the realm of possibility for General Sahib Jalil Khan to capture us and turn us over to the Taliban that same night, but fortunately, he chose not to do so. He could turn us in as he commanded over more than 60 individuals. In contrast, General Jilani and I had only seven or eight people accompanying us, with only light weapons. General Sahib Askar, the commander of the 21st Battalion, was also present with General Jilani and me at the time.
To summarize, General Sahib Jalil surrendered, and we had to retreat to the Ab Khorma region. Following his surrender, the Taliban took control of Farah and lost Nimroz too.
From a military standpoint, the valley of Chekab is of utmost importance between Herat and Helmand. The Taliban took complete control of Chekab that night, known as “Chekaw” in the local dialect.
Another defense line could be Ab Khorma. But we lost it too and ended up at a crucial location called “Shouz.” At first, I didn’t know much about Shouz, but upon examining the map, I realized that losing it would mean the Taliban could easily take over Shindand without any resistance.
Our forces retreated in confusion, disorder, and low morale. I was at the rear with a small group of people while the rest of the troops fled ahead of us. The Taliban did not advance on Shouz immediately.
We established a defensive line at Shouz and brought back some of our forces to stabilize it. We strengthened the line to the extent that we successfully repelled the intense offensive attacks from the Taliban that lasted for several months.
The defensive line of Shoz
Sheesha Media: Did the events of this story take place in Hoot in the year 1373?
General Azimi: Yes, that is correct. I would like to mention that at the outset, Taleban did not allow us time to regroup before launching his attack. Their recent experience had taught him not to let any opportunity slip away.
We had a tough time enduring the first night at Shouz. Looking back on that time, now that 27 years have passed since that day, it’s hard to believe that we could withstand the challenges we faced that night. We lacked the resources and personnel to gather our forces, and we were unable to establish a line of defense.
While our entire forces were retreating, a few of us, including myself, stood our ground with unwavering determination. With the assistance of Sharif Jan Sangalani and Commander Qazi Mohammad Askar, who hailed from Farah and held the official position of commander for the 21st Farah Battalion, we could keep our military locations. However, we had already lost Farah with the surrender of Commander Jalil. The three of us requested General Sahib Afzali to send crewless transportation and combat vehicles to our location.
The scattered state of our forces made any hope of unification seem futile. The transportation and combat vehicles would approach our location with their lights turned off and then return to the back station, only to repeat the process a few times. Meanwhile, General Sahib Afzali had stationed in the rear camp. Despite the empty vehicles repeatedly coming and going, we aimed to demonstrate to the Taliban that we had sufficient reinforcements.
By displaying strong resistance, we managed to make it through the night. However, we endured many losses, and several individuals who fought alongside us lost their lives. I offer my prayers for their souls to rest in peace.
The following morning, we received support from the air force, but unfortunately, our gunner had not set up a camp in the rear of the front to provide us with assistance. At the same time, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan arrived to support us, coinciding with the air force activity. He had already given instructions to establish an artillery camp to provide us with additional support.
In the southwest region, the air force could fly warplanes only with the guidance of Amir Sahib. On that same night, Amir Sahib Ismail Khan instructed the Air Force Commander that, from then on, all air combat missions should be conducted under the guidance of Zaherjan. Amir Sahib Ismail Khan referred to me with deep sincerity as “Zaherjan”, rather than using the title “General Azimi”.
Amir Sahib also provided the same guidance to the artillery unit and placed the entire responsibility of commanding the defense of Shouz on my shoulders. My fellow soldiers and I gradually stabilized and strengthened the defensive line through the artillery, air force, and infantry coordinated efforts.
Recognizing that our personnel was exhausted and demoralized, I told Amir Sahib that we needed to make changes. I explained that we didn’t require excessive troops to defend our position, as our current forces were sufficient. Amir Sahib concurred, and we gradually made personnel changes. As a result, the total number of our troops in the defense line of Shouz was reduced to between eight and ten thousand individuals.
Fresh forces from Kabul also provided us with assistance. On the first night, when General Sahib Alauddin Khan was wounded, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan requested reinforcements from Kabul. He informed the central government that defending Herat without additional force would be challenging.
I recall that towards the end of the meeting, Amir Sahib contacted Ustad Rabbani and spoke with Amir Sahib Shahid Masoud, requesting that five thousand troops be deployed to Herat by the following day. The arrival of soldiers began the next day. However, it took several days for three thousand troops to arrive finally.
The forces from Kabul provided us with exceptional assistance. Their arrival boosted the morale of our soldiers, and they brought with them the experience of fighting in the mountainous regions around Kabul, including Panjshir. The Shouz region also has hills and mountains, and the fresh forces could maneuver effectively in these terrains. I recall that the troops from Kabul were led by General Sahib Qadam Shah, who later became the Chief of Command of the Afghanistan National Army.
General Sahib Qadam Shah Shahim’s arrival with the forces from Kabul marked a turning point for us. Even years later, when we were both at the Ministry of Defense in Kabul after September 11, he always addressed me as “Qomandan Sahib”. It is worth noting that General Sahib Qadam Shah was the commander of the first group of forces that arrived from Kabul. However, the overall commander of these forces was General Sahib Najim Khan, one of the most experienced commanders of the Panjshir Front.
Our positions were gradually fortified with the assistance of the forces from Kabul. I recall placing significant emphasis on consolidating our positions and constructing fortifications. On the battlefield, there is a well-known adage saying there are two main factors in war – trenches, and food.
We meticulously prepared the ground, ensuring that both our logistics and food supply were consistently maintained. Our fortifications were also constructed to a high standard. Mining was also extensively employed, contributing to the Taliban’s heavy losses in every offensive assault. During the few months we held a defensive line in Shouz, the Taliban sustained significant casualties.
Sheesha Media: I would like to revisit the first Taliban war against the forces in Sanglan. In your treatise, “How did the Taliban come?” you wrote about the Taliban’s strategy of attacking the weakest point of the posts where people related to Kandahari and Helmandi commanders, including the forces of Ghaffar Akhundzadeh, were stationed. Can you elaborate on this story?
General Azimi: Certainly. The Taliban’s attack targeted the weakest points of the posts where the forces of Ghaffar Akhundzadeh were stationed. Following this attack, the 88th Parachute Unit of Herat, the most organized force, took most of the blow. The Taliban also aimed to convey to Herat that they had no issues with them and only sought to remove the remnants of the forces acting arbitrarily in Kandahar. The Taliban propagated this propaganda, which had also infiltrated the ranks of our troops.
The Taliban said that you are the true Mujahideen, as you have successfully restored order and have the support of the people of Herat. However, they questioned why you provide refuge to individuals who have committed heinous crimes such as raping children and buying and selling people’s minors. They asked why you do not hand these criminals over to us.
The Taliban’s objective with their propaganda was to diminish the motivation for the war among the people of Herat. They wanted to convey to the people of Herat that they should not expose themselves in a conflict that aims to hold, according to their claims, a group of corrupt and murderous individuals from Helmand and Kandahari accountable.
The Taliban’s propaganda resulted in the formation of factions within our ranks, which somehow impacted our initial defeat. The subsequent attack they launched was highly successful. Later we learned that some Taliban rangers had flanked the command post and initiated an ambush from that position. This swift and precise operation significantly boosted the morale of the Taliban forces, although it resulted in the loss of all occupants of the Ranger.
Sheesha Media: Was it true that during the retreat of your forces, Mohammad Shah, another commander related to the movement of Maulvi Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, surrendered, and the Taliban quickly took control of Farah and Nimroz?
General Azimi: Yes, that is correct. As I mentioned earlier, the surrender of General Sahib Jalil Khan resulted in the submission of all the regions and forces of Farah. He had led the Taliban straight into the center of Farah province. Our evasion tactic failed, and as a result, Farah and Nimroz fell the same night.
Sheesha Media: Did General Dostum’s air force support the Taliban during this or the next stage?
General Azimi: No, they did not provide any support at this stage, neither in the air nor on the ground. They did not pose any threat from the Faryab front. However, during the Herat Islamic Council meeting, General Dostum’s forces threw a bomb at the Herat Hotel, also known as the Park Hotel, where the meeting was in progress. This hotel is located near the Provincial Mansion and in the city’s center.
Later, another hotel named Herat Hotel was built, and the previous one became more commonly known as the Park Hotel. Until Herat was on the brink of falling, General Dostum’s forces did not launch any further attacks. It was only when Herat was on the verge of falling that General Dostum’s planes bombed us, which worked in favor of the Taliban.
Recovering lost areas
Sheesha Media: Your defense line in Shouz is impressive, as it managed to transition from the defensive to the offensive, taking back Farah and Nimroz and advancing toward Helmand. At that time, there was an idea that your forces would capture Lashkargah and Kandahar, effectively eradicating the Taliban. Can you describe how you regained control of Farah and Nimroz?
General Azimi: The upcoming publication of my book, “Herat on the Threshold of National Leadership,” will provide further insight into this matter. In it, I have outlined three main reasons for the fall of Herat to the Taliban in 1374, one of which pertains to the issue you raised in your question.
Our forces were on the brink of capturing Helmand and Kandahar. However, in consultation with Amir Sahib, the commanders of the Shouz defense line decided to continue with the defensive strategy until we were sure that the situation was entirely in our favor, mentally and physically. Only then should we choose to shift to the attack phase.
The Taliban launched extremely aggressive attacks, and at one point, we received news that Mullah Muhammad Omar himself had arrived in the vicinity of Shouz Line with 1,600 of his followers. According to reports, he had stationed himself in Fararod while his followers came to the front line and launched an attack during the night.
That night, Mulla Mohammad Omar allegedly declared they must either conquer Shindand or ruin themselves. Through determined efforts, we could effectively defend ourselves by making precise and coordinated use of our resources, which resulted in significant losses for the Taliban. As a result of this strategic defense, a large majority of their offensive forces retreated from the battlefront, and this shift in momentum ultimately proved to be a turning point in the war in our favor.
I recall that over 150 Taliban bodies were left at our fortifications after the defense, and we buried them before sending the coffins to the Taliban. We also took several prisoners that night. These same captives confirmed that Mullah Mohammad Omar had said, “Either we take Shindand, or we ruin ourselves.”
The Taliban also suffered heavy casualties due to our strategic use of mines and their careful placement. The mines played a crucial role in turning the tide of the war in our favor. Their effectiveness was comparable to that of the air force, which provided support during the day while the mines were relied upon at night.
Our resolute defense successfully repelled the initial attacks launched by the Taliban and ultimately weakened their forces. However, it’s worth noting that the support provided by Kabul also boosted our morale, the generous assistance extended by Mr. Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, and the frequent visits of officials to our defense lines. These factors played a significant role in keeping our spirits high and maintaining our resolve during the conflict.
As the situation began to favor our side and we observed the gradual erosion of the Taliban’s forces, we seized the opportunity to retake Ab Khorma. This successful operation boosted our confidence and provided us with a strategic advantage, allowing us to move forward with plans to recapture Dellaram and position our forces in “Chekab” or “Chekaw”.
Our forces remained stationed in Chekab for some time. I believed we should move swiftly to secure the valley and prepare to retake Farah. Given that our victories had severely weakened opposing forces, we needed to seize the opportunity to make significant gains. However, for unknown reasons, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan opposed advancing through the Chekab valley and launching a large-scale offensive operation.
Despite my persistence, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan eventually sent me to Herat, advising me to rest after months spent on the defensive line. I complied and stayed in Herat for approximately a month until I was summoned back by Amir Sahib, who had then decided that we should proceed with the plan to retake Farah.
Sheesha Media: So, you intended for the military advancement to persist without any halt?
General Azimi: Correct. We should not overlook any openings on the battlefield. I advocated for an approach to war management that prioritizes timely action and capitalizes on the enemy’s weakened state without wasting valuable time.
A significant contributing factor to the success of the Taliban on the battlefield is their adept use of this tactic. They effectively and efficiently apply this strategy, denying their adversaries the opportunity to regroup. After scattering their opposition, they relentlessly pursue them until they are entirely annihilated.
Our troops during that time were not purely conventional or irregular, making it difficult to engage in traditional warfare. In a conventional war, a regular army soldier is trained to hold his position at all costs until ordered to retreat by his commanding officer.
In traditional warfare, a soldier is expected to hold their position in the trench even if their comrades fall in battle. However, in guerrilla warfare, the objective is to disperse the enemy, launch surprise attacks, and prevent them from strategizing effectively.
In guerrilla warfare, the primary objective is to strike the enemy using various tactics, such as sabotaging their vehicles and disrupting their logistics supply lines. The aim is to induce a sense of panic in the enemy forces, making them feel vulnerable and unsafe in their encampments. Once the enemy is weakened and exhausted, the guerrilla forces must continue to apply pressure and prevent them from regrouping. Pursuing the enemy relentlessly is crucial to push them out of the battlefield so they pose no further threat.
From a professional standpoint, I argued that we should not give the enemy, who was in a hurry, a chance to think. However, Amir Sahib had political considerations in mind, which led to some annoyance between us. As a result, he sent me to Herat for a month. During this time, there was no war, as the Taliban were not in a position to launch an attack, and our forces did not pursue them due to Mohammad Ismail Khan’s instructions.
When I returned to Ab Khorma with my forces, the war stopped on the same day. As for Chekab, where our forces were deployed, it is a fact that the Red Army could not clear the area even once. Eventually, the Mujahideen lost control, and the region fell into the hands of arbitrary forces who terrorized passing civilians and became known as the “Chekaw thieves.”
Despite the efforts of Russian forces, the government, and the Mujahideen, these forces were not evicted from the area. However, we were able to reorganize our forces, secure the Chekaw, and successfully assume control of Farah. Following this victory, our troops could gain control of Nimroz too.
Before taking action in Farah, Amir Sahib Ismail Khan believed that General Dr. Nasir Ahmad Khan’s forces, as the commander of the Shindand Air Garrison, should take control of the situation. He suggested that we should assist in facilitating their efforts.
Amir Sahib argued that our forces were scattered. For instance, in addition to the Kandaharis and Helmandis led by Ghafarakhandzadeh, Amer Lali, and Khan Mohammad Khan, we had two brigades of Uzbeks who were opposing General Dostam within our ranks. Arbab Hashem’s brother commanded one of these brigades while a general led the other. These two commanders approached me with a plan to participate in the operation to recapture Farah.
I told Amir Sahib that we should not delay our operation because our forces would become vulnerable if we waited. The terrain in Farah is flat, and we lack fortifications, and we risk experiencing a repeat of what happened in Sangalani. I suggested we either commence building fortifications, trenching, and laying mines in our current position so that General Nasir Ahmad’s forces can join us or launch an attack to liberate Farah.
Amir Sahib agreed to the plan and authorized the assault. Despite facing difficulty passing the Chekab, we showed it an easy success to Amir Sahib and eventually arrived in Farah within minutes. Upon our arrival, General Sahib Jalil Khan surrendered to us once again. Accompanied by Generals Sharif Khan Yalani and Jalil Khan, I entered the center of Farah province.
We had already determined the specific forces deployed to Farah’s National Security Directorate, Jihadi Order Unit, and Fargh Battalion. We also decided on the time and location for their deployment. As planned, the deployment proceeded smoothly, and all the forces moved to their assigned positions without any issues. For instance, those set to transfer to the provincial police command assumed their positions there, while those assigned to the 71st Battalion moved to their designated location. Some of our forces were also transferred to Farah Jihadi Unit as planned.
By the way, the Taliban did not put up any resistance during our advance into Farah. Accompanied by Generals Yalani and Shams, along with some troops, we arrived at the Farah provincial building and positioned ourselves at the entrance. There we apprehended Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who had been serving as the governor of Farah on behalf of Mullah Muhammad Omar Akhund.
We successfully captured Mullah Obaidullah, and although I am glad our mission was a success, I cannot help but feel regret for his capture. He was a man of great character, and his positive qualities had a significant psychological impact on me. Interestingly, when we arrived at the gate of the provincial building, he came out as if he was unaware that we had taken control of Farah.
When Mulla Obaidullah confronted me, he asked who I was. I introduced myself by name, and he ordered his bodyguards not to shoot. Unfortunately, one of his bodyguards attempted to shoot and was subsequently shot, and I cannot recall if he was injured or killed. The remaining bodyguards were disarmed, and Mullah Obaidullah did not surrender, but he did acknowledge our dominance and engaged us in conversation.
Sheesha Media: Was Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, you previously mentioned, the same person who became the Defense Minister of the Taliban?
General Azimi: Yes, he was from the Noorzi tribe in Panjawai, Kandahar. He had a good character, with the qualities of a true professional soldier well-suited for the position in the Ministry of Defense in the ranking of the Taliban. He impressed me. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, he refused to surrender. He even told me later that he would rather die than raise his hands in surrender. Over time, I began to appreciate the bond that captivity had forged between us, and it almost felt like we had become good friends.
I must remember a conflict between our forces, the Haitians, and the Kandaharis. The Kandaharis demanded that I hand over Mullah Obaidullah to be killed, but it was clear that I would not comply. As a result, there was shelling, and the Kandaharis fired upon us in an attempt to forcibly take Mullah Obaidullah from me.
Unfortunately, General Sahib Sharif was injured, and some of my bodyguards were also wounded while several of Amer Lali and Ostad Halim’s associates were killed. Despite this, the Kandaharis managed to take Mullah Obaidullah to a safe place, far from the reach of Amer Lali and Ostad Halim.
Another problem arose when Amir Sahib Ismail Khan became upset with me. The story behind it was that after we established our control in Farah and took Mullah Obaidullah to a secure location, the Kandaharis realized that they could not take him by force, and the issue was resolved.
At that time, I became aware that one of our messengers had arrived from Lashkargah to Farah. This individual was one of my contacts who had previously been associated with the Harakati Islami movement and had been active in Harakat’s fronts in a part of Helmand Province during the Jihad.
The messenger informed me that the Taliban were in the process of evacuating Helmand. They had removed their ammunition and taken their prisoners with them, leaving only one fighting force in the region. As a result, both Lashkargah and Helmand were completely evacuated.
Upon receiving this news, I acted hastily. I decided to order all of our units (excluding those stationed at the police command) to be supplied with fuel and ammunition and to continue advancing without consulting or seeking guidance from Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan. I intended to take control of Helmand.
From a professional and military perspective, my decision to issue this order was justified, as it is essential to pursue the enemy until the end and not give them any opportunity to rest or regroup on the battlefield. However, the general commander of the military forces in the southwest region was Amir Sahib, and I had to seek guidance before taking any further action.
Amir Sahib did not consider it advisable to advance toward Helmand on that day and was quite upset that I had issued such an order without seeking guidance from him first.
Additionally, our forces were scattered and disorganized and tended to sell off their fuel and ammunition whenever they had the opportunity. Therefore, I believed that it was necessary to ensure that their “spending share” was completed after the operation and to issue advance orders to achieve both military objectives and prevent chaos.
You must take all necessary steps to prevent them from acting arbitrarily. For instance, it is essential to ensure that the tanks of their vehicles are filled with fuel and that their guns are loaded with bullets. By doing so, you can effectively manage their actions and instruct them to perform their duties when their tank and gun are fully operational. If their tank or gun becomes empty, they will be responsible for handling them accordingly.
But when you store oil and ammunition in warehouses protected by scattered forces deployed elsewhere without proper maintenance, it can result in a variety of problems. One such problem is the loss of resources. Additionally, the presence of these large and irregular forces in Farah increased the risk of theft and disorder.
I was deeply concerned about the behavior of Amer Lali’s people and the Uzbek Units, as they proved almost uncontrollable. Another essential factor motivating my actions was my professional responsibility, as I had previously explained. I could not allow the enemy any opportunity to take advantage of the situation and gain an advantage.
I recall making a lighthearted comment to a general, suggesting that if we were to take control of Helmand and Kandahar successfully, it might reduce the problematic behavior of Amer Lali’s people. In my comment, I also suggested that if we were successful in this endeavor, it might be possible to shift the responsibility of controlling these areas to their people, thereby relieving us of that burden.
Indeed, among the Uzbeks, Abdul Manaf’s followers were religious individuals, while Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s people were sincere Muslims. However, controlling Amer Lali’s followers proved to be a very challenging task. It is worth mentioning that Shir Mohammad Akhundzadeh was also present alongside Ghafar Akhundzadeh and many other passionate and idealistic young people.
Sheesha Media: Is Shir Mohammad Akhundzadeh Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s brother?
General Azimi: Yes. He is his nephew. As far as I remember, he was very polite. Amir Sahib was greatly displeased that I had equipped all of the military forces without first obtaining his permission and had ordered them to advance.
Amir Sahib indirectly told me that I had disregarded his leadership and the established hierarchy and acted without his guidance. He also suggested that I had become over-confident after taking Farah, forgetting whose guidance I should seek. It should be noted that Amir Sahib had made some very disparaging remarks about me, despite not meeting me in person.
Amir Sahib arrived in Farah by helicopter and discovered that the logistics officer was distributing lubricants to the military forces and that everyone was preparing to move out. Upon asking the logistics officer who had authorized the distribution of the oils, the officer indicated that he had followed the orders of General Zahir. In response, Amir Sahib used profanity and foul language, referring to me.
Amir Sahib was under the impression that I was not present and spoke candidly about the situation. However, when he realized that I was nearby, he fell silent. Nevertheless, I felt offended by his remarks, and I sensed that he was upset with me for not seeking his guidance before directing the military forces toward Helmand.
Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan once again advised me to go to Herat and rest for a while. In effect, I was relieved of my command of the forces. I asked about Mullah Obaidullah, who was a prisoner, and whether we should take him to Herat. Amir Sahib instructed us to take him along.
Furthermore, Amir Sahib showed great respect toward Mullah Obaidullah. “We are at war. Today you are captive to me”, he said. “Maybe tomorrow I will be captive to you.” After this, I traveled to Herat together with Mullah Obaidullah Akhund. Despite his status as a prisoner, I maintained a personal relationship with him for quite some time, and he even wrote letters to me.
When the Taliban captured Amir Sahib, Mullah Obaidullah visited him in prison and recalled the same sentence between Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and himself. Mullah Obaidullah acknowledged that Amir Sahib had spoken the truth, stating that yesterday he was a prisoner of Amir Sahib, but today, Amir Sahib was their captive. Mullah Obaidullah shared this story with me in a letter he wrote to me.
I must confess that I made another severe mistake. Before departing for Herat, Amir Sahib had instructed me to interview with the BBC. However, at the time, I was serving as the military spokesperson for the southwest region. During the interview with the BBC, I spoke with a news anchor named Alireza. He asked me about the situation on the ground. I mistakenly believed he was making an initial talk and would only record my response once we officially began the interview.
Unfortunately, my mistake continued as I proceeded to speak candidly and casually with Ali Reza about the events on the ground as if we were simply chatting. I described our tactics and victories in detail. After our conversation, Ali Reza wished me well and signed off. I asked him if he was not doing the interview. “This was the interview,” he said.
I told him I thought you were to familiarize yourself with the situation beforehand and initiate a formal conversation while simultaneously beginning the recording. I also told him that I did not mention the name of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. He informed me that he had run out of time and that another interview was no longer possible.
I informed him that if my words were made public, Amir Sahib would likely expel me from Herat city. He then assured me he would personally interview Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan. On the same night, BBC broadcasted my words but did not interview Amir Sahib, which caused him to feel upset and angry.
At that time, the only media outlet people trusted was BBC Persian. People even jokingly referred to it as the “sixth prayer”, implying that, like the five daily prayers, people always listened to it and never questioned its credibility.
It was understandable that Amir Sahib was angry about this. I visited him at his house in Herat and acknowledged that he was right. In my statements, I did not mention any names, even though he was the general military commander and had authority. This interview only made him more irritated. Afterward, Amir Sahib stayed in Farah while I went to Herat.
Sheesha Media: Did you bring Mullah Obaidullah with you to Herat?
General Azimi: Yes, I did. I brought Mullah Obaidullah and fourteen other Pakistanis captured in Farah to Herat by helicopter.
Sheesha Media: Were those Pakistani prisoners also religious leaders like Mullah Obaidullah?
General Azimi: Yes, they were members of Jamiatul Ulema Islam Pakistan and Jamaatul Tabligh. Although we transported them in two helicopters, I made sure that Mullah Obaidullah’s hands were not tied. We even talked during the helicopter ride until we arrived in Herat.
As a guest, I took Mullah Obaidullah to my house in Herat that night. After dinner, I brought him to my office at the Herat Commissionerate, where I arranged a guest house room for him to stay.
During his stay at the Herat Military Commissariat, which lasted for two or three more nights, I advised Mullah Obaidullah not to be disheartened as being captured is one of the harsh realities of war.
Eventually, I handed him over to Herat National Security according to the rules and regulations of that time. However, I later heard that he was pressured while under their custody. So, I went to Dr. Abdulzaher Jan and urged him not to treat Mullah Obaidullah harshly. I reminded him that we could also be captured or killed in the morning and that it is not right to subject prisoners to undue pressure.
Sheesha Media: Forgive me, was Dr. Abdulzaher Jan Herat’s Head of National Security then?
General Azimi: Yes. Dr. Abdulzaher Jan was the head of national security in Herat during that time. One day, Amir Sahib Ismail Khan requested that Mullah Obaidullah come to my house and give an interview for the BBC. We had a satellite then, which facilitated our contact with the BBC.
So, I took Mullah Obaidullah from the National Security to Amir Sahib’s house. However, he refused to speak to the BBC, perhaps thinking we wanted him to speak against the Taliban. “If you kill me,” he said, “I will not talk to the BBC”. We clarified that we only wanted his voice to be heard on the BBC and did not intend to force him to speak against the Taliban. He said that he does not talk against the Taliban in any way. We were a little upset by his behavior, but we told him that it was up to him whether he spoke or not.
On another occasion, Mullah Obaidullah confided in me, saying that he had a secret to share and would only do so if Amir Sahib Ismail Khan agreed to hear it. We arranged a communication with Amir Sahib, who was in Farah then. Mullah Obaidullah revealed that the delegation we had sent to Kandahar to negotiate with Mullah Muhammad Omar had all pledged allegiance to him. The delegation was led by Maulvi Sahib Khodadad and consisted of ten religious scholars.
Disputes between Kabul and Herat
Sheesha Media: If I am correct, Mawlawi Khudad was Head of Herat’s Court?
General Azimi: Yes. He was the head of the courts of Herat, and he was the head of a delegation of religious scholars we sent to Kandahar to Mullah Muhammad Omar. In the team composition, there were individuals we didn’t think would commit such disloyalty. Consequently, I reported this issue to Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan via radio.
He instructed me to notify the national security authorities to closely monitor these ten individuals’ travel, communication, correspondence, and meetings.
Subsequently, the national security authorities monitored all of them. After some time, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan sent me back to Farah, where another unanticipated problem arose between us once again.
During my stay in Farah, the then-president, Ostad Rabbani, visited the city. The first teacher arrived in Herat and then traveled to Farah. Interestingly, Amir Sahib Ismail Khan did not accompany Ustad Rabbani from Herat to Farah, and it’s unclear why he did not come. While in Farah, Professor Rabbani met with me, Ghafarakhandzadeh, and Aref Nurzai. Aref Nurzai was also present with us, along with some of his people, in the defense line of Shouz, and he was also in Farah during this time.
Following the recapture of Farah and Nimroz, and the advance of our units, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan regained his position as the primary authority figure in the southwest region. He disliked that the central government issued orders and prohibitions and had supporters among all war commanders, including myself, who reported our every move to him.
Ustad Rabbani did not permit anyone else to join us in that meeting. Only Aref Nurzai, Ghafar Akhundzadeh, and I were present. This exclusive meeting deeply saddened Amir Sahib, and despite my informing him of the details, he did not believe me.
During that meeting, Ustad Rabbani requested that I coordinate with the Kandaharis, Uzbeks, and Helmandis to attack and seize Lashkargah jointly. For unknown reasons, Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan did not want us to launch an offensive in Helmand and take control from the Taliban, while Ustad Rabbani favored the plan.
I apologize for missing this point. In the same meeting, we had with Ustad Rabbani, Commander Abdul Manaf Uzbek was also present, along with Ghafar Akhundzadeh from Helmand and Aref Nurzai from Kandahar.
The Kandaharis and the Helmandis had informed Ustad Rabbani that they could not agree on a joint commander for the operation to capture Helmand. Hence, they suggested that if Azimi took charge of the overall command of the assault, they could proceed and capture Helmand.
In the meeting, I told Ustad Rabbani that the Kandahar and Helmandis had limited military tactics and strategy knowledge, and their recent victories had given them exaggerated confidence. I expressed to Ustad that an attack on Lashkargah would not be possible without the support of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan.
I emphasized that to launch an attack on Helmand, we would require air support, continuous logistics, heavy weapons, and artillery fire, all of which we could only obtain with the help and guidance of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan.
I distinctly recall conveying to the president during the meeting that without the support of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, an attack on Helmand would not be feasible.
Sheesha Media: Does this indicate a significant rift between the former president and Amir Muhammad Ismail Khan?
General Azimi: Yes, it does. In fact, the extent of this divide was revealed to us just before the fall of Herat. I provided Amir Sahib with a comprehensive account of our meeting with Ustad Rabbani, but regrettably, he was unconvinced.
On the contrary, his mistrust towards the Kandaharis, Helmandis, and Uzbeks had intensified. He believed that these groups were being used as instruments of coercion and sabotage by the central government against him, with substantial funding being allocated for this purpose.
When I traveled to Kabul for official duties, the central government would allocate funds to commanders from Kandahar, Helmand, and Uzbek. Ustad Shahid personally handed over the funds to me, instructing me to distribute them accordingly to the Kandahari, Helmandi, and Uzbek patriots.
I would carry the allocated funds on the plane when I returned to Herat. Despite informing Amir Sahib, he still harbored doubts about me. He noted that as I frequently brought the money from Kabul, I may be seen as a pawn of the central government being used to conspire with the Kandaharis and Helmandis against him.
Although I remained obedient to my direct commander, Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, his suspicion of me continued to escalate daily. Following a meeting with Ustad Rabbani and Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan, I was again dispatched from Farah to Herat and taken away from the battlefield.
Sheesha Media: If possible, could you explain why Amir Muhammad Ismail Khan was reluctant to have the troops move and take Lashkargah?
General Azimi: While I cannot confidently say why he was hesitant, it became apparent that Amir Sahib did not want me to lead the operation to capture Helmand.
Removing me from the battlefield and being sent to Herat, along with the words spoken by Amir Sahib on that day, were highly abnormal and improper. While I cannot be sure what Amir Sahib was thinking at the time, this decision on their part was one of his strategic mistakes.
At the point when the enemy forces were weak, we could make further advancements and capture all areas under their control.
If we had continued to press forward toward Lashkargah on the same day we successfully captured Mullah Obaidullah, the overall situation in Afghanistan would probably have been vastly different, and the current state of affairs might not exist today.
After being dispatched to Herat, I realized that Amir Sahib had gradually removed all the commanders from the battlefield. There has always been suspicion between the Heratis and the Shindandis. It is worth noting that Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan hails from the Chaharmahal district of Shindand.
Sheesha Media: So, is it safe to assume that there was a clash of interests between the Urbans and Rurals?
General Azimi: Yes, that’s correct. Amir Sahib systematically removed all the Herati commanders from the battlefield. This includes General Abdul Zahir, the head of national security for Herat, General Sahib Afzali, Muallem Majid, and other commanders whose names I have mentioned before.
At that time, only Amir Sahib Ismail Khan, Dr. Nasir Ahmad Shindandi, and his father remained on the battlefield. He appointed Dr. Nasir Ahmad’s father as the ruler of Shindand. It’s worth noting that the forces of the central government, led by General Sahib Najim Khan Panjshiri, were also present on the battlefield.
For approximately two months, the troops remained stationed in Farah and Chekab, resulting in palpable tension between the residents of Herat and Kandahar. A group of individuals, believed to be affiliated with Ustad Halim Kandahari, attacked the Farah Bank and stole a sum of money. The residents of Herat sought to prevent the attack, which led to a violent confrontation resulting in gunfire.
Subsequently, three members of Ustad Halim’s group were apprehended, prosecuted, and ultimately executed. The incident, and the altercation mentioned above, further exacerbated the tensions between the Kandaharis and Amir Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan.
During the two months, I was not at the frontline, I had infrequent in-person meetings with Amir Sahib. As previously mentioned, I was redeployed to Farah for this period. Subsequently, the president visited Farah and convened a meeting, which I have already described in detail.
The meeting had a consequential impact on Amir Sahib’s trust in me, leading to my reassignment back to Herat. During my absence, Amir Sahib resolved to attack Lashkargah and capture it.
The forces were divided into three units for the military operation to capture Lashkargah. The first unit comprised the Kandaharis, consisting of Ustad Abdul Halim’s forces, Amer Lali’s men, and Aref Nurzai’s fighters. The second unit was composed of the Helmandis, which included Ghafar Akhundzadeh’s forces.
I must remind you that the number of forces led by Ghafar Akhundzadeh was greater than that of the Kandaharis. As Ghafar Akhundzadeh moved from Ghor to Herat, his troops gradually joined him from Helmand, resulting in more fighters than the Kandaharis.
The third unit was composed of the troops under the leadership of General Sahib Nasir Ahmad Khan and the forces led by Abdul Manaf Khan Uzbek and another Uzbek commander.
Subsequently, General Sahib Sharif Yalani, who was in charge of the four armored forces present on the battlefield, recounted the incident to me. According to him, only one commander from Herat remained in the battle, while the others were not from Herat.
Apparently, Amir Sahib intended to grant credit for the victories in Helmand and Kandahar to the Shindandis of Chaharmahli rather than the urban Heratis. As a result, he dismissed all the Herati commanders from the battlefield except for Sharif Jan.
General Sharif informed me that the forces moved without problems and arrived near Lashkargah. He added that upon reaching there, he suggested to Amir Sahib that he initiate talks with Amer Sahib Masoud and Ustad Rabbani immediately.
According to Sharif Jan, he advised Amir Sahib to initiate talks with President Rabbani and Amer Sahib Masoud as they had moved away from their region and into a place where their cultural connections were weak, and their familiarity with the environment was not strong enough. Additionally, their knowledge of the tribes residing in Helmand was not accurate either. Therefore, he suggested it would be better to talk with the president and Amer Sahib Masoud to make appropriate arrangements, come to decisions, and stay informed.
However, as per Sharif Jan, Amir Sahib did not accept this advice and instead informed him that they would initiate talks when they got closer. It seems that Amir Sahib believed he could seize Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Ghazni, and Wardak from the Taliban with the same force he had moved and then traveled to Kabul to engage in talks with Ustad Rabbani and Amer Sahib Masoud.
Prior to approaching Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, it is believed that Amir Sahib or his supervisors made specific assessments. However, as I later discovered, they had failed to sufficiently consider the strength and capabilities of their forces in the appointments of authorities of Helmand.
The Helmand forces expected that the decisions made in Helmand should be based on the military capabilities and local influence of the forces as they moved from Farah to Helmand. Of course, in such circumstances, the designations would be made without a professional and cultural basis. The appointment of authorities would be made based on military power and local influence. But as I later heard, Ghafar Akhundzadeh was given a tiny share in the decisions made for Helmand Province.
On the other hand, Amir Sahib did not consult with the central authorities regarding the decisions made for Helmand and instead drove all the decisions himself.
As mentioned earlier, Amir Sahib did not accept Sharif Jan’s advice. Instead, he seemed to favor someone named Muallem Shah Wali Khan for the role of Helmand Province. Muallem Shah Wali Khan was from Helmand and was a member of Jamiat-e-Islami. He used to bring reports to Amir Sahib from Helmand and had a close relationship with him.
Once again, the commanders advised Amir Sahib to leave the decisions regarding Helmand to the central authorities. This approach would ensure that the responsibility was taken away from the southwestern region, and the central government could consider the ethnic and political factors of Helmand per its demographic and cultural context.
However, it seems that Amir Sahib did not accept this proposal, which became the starting point of the rifts between the two sides. Later, I heard that it was not easy for Kabul to submit the idea of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan taking Helmand, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Wardak with his army and appointing all the authorities himself, and then entering Kabul in the role of governor of a large part of the country’s territory.
From a security and intelligence standpoint, some argued that the central government played a destructive role by causing the forces under the command of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan to be defeated in Helmand.
There was an air attack on the forces of the southwest area near Helmand, but it was uncertain whether the plane had flown from Kandahar or belonged to General Dostum. At that time, there were one or two warplanes in Kandahar that were in possession of the Taliban. However, this air attack did not cause any significant harm to the forces of the southwest region, including the Kandaharis and Helmandis.
Amir Sahib organized the military into columns, with the right column consisting entirely of Helmandis under Ghafar Akhundzadeh. The middle column comprised Kandaharis, led by Aref Nurzai, Amer Lali, and Ostad Halim. The left column formed Uzbeks opposed to General Dostum and directed by Abdul Manaf Khan. General Sahib Nasir Ahmad Khan was also present in this column. They started the operation and advanced towards Lashkargah, reaching its vicinity.
Sheesha Media: Before delving into the story of the operation, may I ask a question to clarify the issues raised? In your book, you mentioned that Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan believed that if his forces were to take control of Helmand from the Taliban, Ghafar Akhundzadeh should not be appointed as the executive authority of the province.
According to your writing, Ismail Khan believed that the authority of Ghafar Akhundzadeh and his associates caused the people to become dissatisfied, resulting in the Taliban’s recapture of Helmand. You also stated that Ismail Khan wanted Moalem Wali to be the ruler in Helmand.
From what you have expressed, the central authorities apparently preferred Ghafar Akhundzadeh for Helmand rather than Ismail Khan. Can you confirm whether this was the case?
General Azimi: In the book, I intend to say that Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan did not want Ghafar Akhundzadeh to become the head of Helmand province. According to Amir Sahib, he believed that Ghafar Akhundzadeh and his brothers were unruly individuals. Being a military man himself, Amir Sahib expected those whom he appointed to a position to obey him based on the same military discipline. However, he knew that Ghafar Akhundzadeh would not follow his orders in the same manner.
Amir Sahib also believed that Ghafar Akhundzadeh was a person who was closely associated with the central government. He had good relations with Amir Sahib Masoud. Due to these reasons, Amir Sahib was of the opinion that the Akhundzadehs should no longer hold the position of head of Helmand province.
This difference in opinion between Amir Sahib and the central government led to several problems. During that time, the central government also believed that Akhundzades were the most influential people of Helmand, being a part of the Alizai tribe, which had the most influence in the province and lived in important places. Thus, Amir Sahib and the central government disagreed regarding this matter.
Sheesha Media: I would like to inquire about the relations between the Noorzi people and Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan during the period following the fall of Dr. Najib. Shindand is home to a significant population of Noorzi people, and they also reside between Shindand and Helmand. Specifically, I would like to know if the relationship between the Noorzis and Amir Ismail Khan was normal or tense during this time.
Additionally, I am curious to know if the relations between the Noorzi people and the inhabitants of Amir Ismail Khan’s hometown in the Chahar Mahal region of Shindand were normal.
General Azimi: Before the emergence of the Taliban, there were no significant issues between the Noorazi people and Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan. If there were any conflicts, they would resolve them quickly. However, at the start of the Mujahideen’s power, there were misunderstandings and divisions between the Noorazis and Amir Sahib, but they were quickly resolved.
There was also a disagreement over the control of Torghandi port, where Noorazi people live between Shindand and Torghandi. They wanted to have control of the ammunition depot and weapon supply center, which was under the government of Dr. Najib and refused to hand it over to the security forces of the southwest region, which was also resolved.
After that, there were no significant problems between Amir Sahib and the Noorazis. Although there were some differences of opinion on specific issues, they were natural and did not lead to any serious issues.
The majority of Noorazis reside in the southwest region of Shindand and Farah. However, some Noorazi individuals interested in Hizb-e-Islami Golbedin Hekmatyar were in Shindand Mountains’ foothills until the fall of Herat. Despite this, they did not pose a security threat to the region.
Until the emergence of the Taliban, the Noorazis in Farah and around Herat did not oppose Amir Sahib’s leadership and were content with his governance. The Noorazis had no significant issues with the people of Chahar Mahal either.
Fall of Herat
Sheesha Media: Please elaborate on the operation and provide further details. Specifically, you previously mentioned that your forces were arranged into three columns: the left column of Uzbeks and General Nasir Ahmad Khan, the right column of Helmandis, and the middle column of Kandaharis. Right?
General Azimi: Yes. The military forces gradually made their way to the Helmand provinces. A group consisting of Uzbeks and Helmand natives entered Gershk. I tell this fact based on the accounts of General Sahib Sharif Yalani and other individuals who were present at the time.
As the Uzbeks and Helmandis were advancing toward Lashkargah, the Taliban pursued the Kandaharis from the center, bringing themselves close to the headquarters of the operation’s chief commander.
Ustad Halim, Arif Noorzai, Amer Lali, and Khan Mohammad Khan were the leaders of the Kandaharis. Still, they failed to work together effectively as they did not follow each other’s orders.
From the moment the Kandaharis retreated to the areas under our control until the fall of Herat, they were never under the command of a single person. They had constant disagreements and failed to submit to each other’s authority. However, all Kandaharis were part of the middle column in the Helmand operation.
The retreat of the Kandaharis exposed a weak point in the forces, which the Taliban exploited to advance after them. This was the same tactic I explained earlier – implementing Shaq or cutting the troops apart.
The members of the Taliban proceeded to the location of the Chief Command of the operation, where Ameer Sahib was present. As soon as this turn of events unfolded, the entire structure of the administration and order crumbled, and Ameer Sahib issued the order to retreat.
As a result of the breakdown in the order and administration of the operation, the retreat was carried out in a state of confusion, disorganization, and broken morale. The left column sustained casualties. Tragically, Dr. Nasir Ahmad lost his life during the withdrawal.
Despite diligent searching, the identity of Dr. Nasir Ahmed’s killer remains unknown. However, one point is evident the Taliban did not kill him.
As the retreat occurred, Dr. Nasir Ahmad communicated with Ameer Sahib, informing him that he had left the area where the Taliban were located. However, despite this, Dr. Nasir Ahmad was targeted and killed in a location where the Taliban were not present.
The individuals accused of killing Dr. Nasir Ahmad are the Uzbek forces fighting against General Dostum’s troops. During the retreat, they were in the left column next to Dr. Nasir Ahmad. However, the identity of the person who fired the fatal shot is still unclear. Unfortunately, due to the chaotic nature of the situation, there was no opportunity to investigate this murder properly.
Notably, during the retreat, the troops bypassed Delaram and proceeded directly to Shindand, resulting in the loss of Farah too.
Simultaneously with the deployment of troops in Shindand, a delegation from Kabul arrived in Herat. Subsequently, I learned that before the departure of this delegation, Ustad Rabbani had called a meeting with the ministers from Herat, including Mr. Deljo Hosseini, Mr. Misbah Herati, and Mr. Ghazizadeh, and instructed them to go to Herat and prevent its fall. He also warned them they would only serve as ministers if Herat survived the fall.
Apparently, these ministers were summoned following the defeat of the Helmand line and subsequently arrived in Herat to fulfill their mission of preventing its fall. Notably, the delegation that came to Herat included Dr. Sahib Abdullah.
Sheesha Media: Did reinforcements arrive in Herat from Kabul along with Dr. Abdullah?
General Azimi: No. The recent military forces did not arrive in Herat. Instead, the same troops that had previously come from Kabul under the leadership of General Najim Khan were present in Herat. Their troops ranged between 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers at that time, although the exact number is unclear in my memory due to the significant passage of time.
Dr. Sahib Abdullah held discussions with several commanders, including myself, who were not at the front in Herat. Among the individuals, he spoke with were General Sahib Afzali, Commander Khwaja Zabiullah, and Commander Ghulam Yahya Khan, a renowned commander in Herat who also held the position of mayor at the time. Additionally, he met with Moalem Majid Khan, Dr. Abdul Zahir, and Qazi Mohammad.
Dr. Abdullah individually summoned the abovementioned commanders, including myself, for discussions. During these discussions, he distributed money to each of them and instructed them to use it to strengthen their forces and defend Herat. The funds were disbursed from Herat Bank and not brought from Kabul.
Dr. Abdullah had brought an official letter from Kabul addressed to the local office of the Central Bank in Herat. The letter stated that the provincial branch of the Central Bank in Herat was mandated to provide funds to the delegation from Kabul.
After receiving treatment, General Alauddin Khan had recently returned to Herat, and he, too, held discussions with Dr. Sahib Abdullah. Subsequently, Dr. Abdullah traveled to Shindand, where he met with Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan at the general command of the defense line.
Based on the information I have received, Dr. Sahib Abdullah requested Ameer Sahib to permit the other commanders of Herat to bring their troops and support him in defending the city. Unfortunately, while they were in conversation, Shindand was overrun by the Taliban, resulting in a complete collapse of the area.
Ameer Sahib perceived the delegation’s behavior, including Dr. Sahib Abdullah, as an attempt by the central government to stage a coup against the Emirate of the Southwest Region. Ameer Sahib believed that the central government favored General Sahib Alauddin Khan and intended to make him the successor to the Emirate.
Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan believed the central government planned to remove him from his position and replace him with General Sahib Alauddin Khan. This perception left Ameer Sahib feeling extremely nervous, upset, and angry.
Following the collapse of Shindand, the troops relocated to Shahbid. Ameer Sahib contacted me and urged me to head to the front lines as the situation became increasingly chaotic. However, I expressed my reservations to Ameer Sahib, stating that the forces had already retreated to Shahbid and that the case was bleak, with defeat appearing imminent.
I explained to Ameer Sahib that the force had already retreated a significant distance of 400 km. The loss of the Shindand airfield and its equipment significantly weakened the troops. At this point, I believed there was little hope of a miraculous turn of events.
Ameer Sahib expressed his frustration and anger with me, insisting that when he gave an order, I should follow it without providing any reasons or objections. Dr. Sahib Abdullah also pressured General Sahib Alauddin Khan to join the front lines. Ameer Sahib also discussed with General Sahib Alauddin Khan, and as a result, both the General and I arrived in Shahbid in the afternoon.
Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan had concluded that the delegation from Kabul, led by Dr. Sahib Abdullah, was attempting to remove him from power and replace him with General Sahib Alauddin Khan. As a result, Ameer Sahib’s conviction was absolute, and there was no doubt left in his mind regarding the intentions of the Kabul delegation.
I arrived at Shahbid early afternoon, around 2 or 3 pm, and General Alauddin Khan joined me a few minutes later. We conversed for approximately ten minutes before I assumed command of the front lines.
Upon inspecting the front lines, I observed no proper trenches, pits, or other defensive positions. Furthermore, the troops were in disarray, with individuals sitting in one location with their guns in front of them.
I attempted to organize a concentrated defense and encourage the troops to establish proper fortifications. Still, it soon became apparent that this would not be possible.
The forces were severely damaged, demoralized, and disorganized. So reintegrating them was no longer feasible. The only viable option was to disband the current troops and replace them with fresh ones to establish a new defense line. However, this was not a feasible solution given the limited time available, as the Taliban were preparing for a significant attack on Herat.
The troops were so rushed that when I observed that rather than advancing toward the enemy, a group of five tanks was moving toward the city of Herat. The back of the tanks faced the enemy front, and the front faced the city of Herat. I asked the tank crew why their tanks were towards the city. They said they were in the same situation from Lashkargah to here, and now don’t think they could stand there.
I ordered the tanks to reposition themselves towards the enemy’s front. It is worth noting that on that particular afternoon, I had visited the front line accompanied by eighty fresh troops.
It dawned on me that the area which posed the greatest vulnerability was the asphalted road. In light of this, I directed 50 out of the 80 soldiers who had accompanied me to move and secure that area. The Shindand-Herat road was the primary route used by the Taliban to enter Herat.
On the eastern side of the road, a tall mountain loomed, which the Taliban had seized the previous night. The cause for this defeat was the complete breakdown of order and administration in the wake of the fall of Shindand.
At around 5 p.m., Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan arrived at the location. I conversed with him while standing in the middle of the road, where I had relocated fifty soldiers of my troops. We met in the middle of the road, with all participants standing. Later, I apprised Ameer Sahib privately that the abovementioned force was no longer fit for combat purposes.
I requested that he arrange for an additional 200 personnel to be assigned under my command. Alauddin Khan had already provided 150 troops, and I had an extra 80 in my unit. I explained to Ameer Sahib that we would use this limited but fresh force to hold the line that night. Meanwhile, the troops who had retreated 400 km should regroup in Herat, rest and reinforce their ranks with new soldiers before gradually returning to the frontline.
Regrettably, despite my warning that the current forces were not fit for battle, Ameer Sahib did not heed my advice. Upon returning to the frontline to assess the situation, I observed with dismay that the same tanks which I had instructed to face the enemy had once again shifted their orientation and were now facing toward the city.
I asked the tank commander why they had reverted to facing the city. He responded that his crew had followed the example of other tank units, and he could not physically lie under every tank to ensure they were facing the enemy’s front.
Then I realized that a significant portion of the vehicles in the area was moving towards the city. Ameer Sahib asked me that there was 5000 personnel, along with a fleet of armored cars, stationed in the area. If such a sizeable force was not fit for battle, how could a few hundred newly arrived troops be expected to hold the line?
Subsequently, I recounted the incident with the tanks to Ameer Sahib and reiterated that the current force was not up to the task. I emphasized that if our objective was to mount a successful defense, we needed to withdraw this unit to the camps within the city and rely on the few hundred newly arrived and fresh troops to defend the front line.
Unfortunately, Ameer Sahib disagreed with my proposal and returned to the city. In contrast, I decided to remain on the frontline with General Sahib Alauddin Khan, even as the weather turned dark.
As darkness descended, we received a radio transmission with the code “14,” which indicated that our forces were to commence a retreat. If my memory serves me correctly, the voice we heard over the radio was that of Qazi Muhammad Khan, who was then serving as the commander of the 21 Shindand Battalion.
Immediately after the code “14” was announced, all the vehicles sprang to life and made a frantic dash toward the city. The date was the 13th of Sunbola in the year 1374. Despite our best efforts, General Sahib Alauddin Khan and I could not prevent the retreat, and all the troops were frantically making their way back to the city. It was yet another circumstance that was beyond our control.
I realized that if I stood in front of the vehicles, there was a risk of getting run over by either a tank or a car. To ensure our safety, I had to give the order for the 50 people I had moved onto the road to retreat, and we all made our way to the Herat airport together.
General Sahib Alauddin Khan also accompanied me to the Herat airport. Once we arrived, we could stop the forces from retreating any further. Multiple tanks were positioned outside the airport. We instructed the operators of those tanks to prevent any troops from entering the city of Herat. The tanks successfully obstructed the road, preventing the troops from retreating.
Alauddin Khan and I decided to go to the city to meet with Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan. The distance from the airport gate to the town was approximately ten minutes by car.
As it was nighttime and traffic was minimal, we arrived earlier than expected and headed to the army camp to meet Amir Sahib. However, we learned that he was not present there. We then went to his residence, but unfortunately, he was also not there.
Upon returning to Corp Camp, we discovered that the Kabul delegation had arrived and was ready to depart for Islam Qala, as evidenced by their prepared vehicles. It was apparent that everyone was heading toward Islam Qala.
Accompanied by Alauddin Khan, I visited his house and then went to my office, the military commissar. Upon arriving, it became evident that everyone was en route to Islam Qala, with cars hastily rushing towards the destination.
There was a general sense of chaos and panic, as nobody seemed willing to remain behind. The frenzy was such that even Alauddin Khan’s driver also left us. I was seated in the car with Alauddin Khan beside me.
We paused for a few minutes near the military commissary, where we discovered that Alauddin Khan’s driver had also run away. Subsequently, I took the front seat, and we resumed our journey toward Islam Qala.
I had no opportunity to return home and provide a report to the family. Upon reaching Islam Qala, we observed all the commanders, members of the delegation from Kabul, and the personnel from our various military bases present.
Upon arrival at Islam Qala, Alauddin Khan and I initially visited Haji Khan Baloch’s house, where we had some bread and tea as we had not eaten anything during the day. After leaving his house, we encountered everyone else who was present at the location.
We got a report that Khawaja Zabihullah had surrendered to the Taliban and had blocked the road supporting the Taliban. At that time, Ameer Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, the Kabul delegation, and all the commanders previously mentioned in our conversation were at the Islam Qala border.
I witnessed two cars brimming with money at the border, transported from the city. One of the vehicles was part of the Kabul delegation and had been brought to Islam Qala, while the other car’s owner remains unknown to me.
The commander, Haji Basir Khan Ghoryani, ordered on the spot that the money be divided equally among the Mujahideen present, noting that many of them did not even have a hundred Afghanis.
Ameer Sahib said let us divide the money when we reach Mashhad. But Haji Basir Khan Ghoriani did not accept and ordered to loot. Then people stole all the money.
The cars were brimmed packages valued at ten thousand Afghanis each, each a bundle of one hundred thousand Afghanis. Individuals took either one, two, or three bundles before departing.
We traveled from Islam Qala to Taibad for one night before continuing our journey to Mashhad. It is worth noting that Haji Sahib Basir Khan Ghoriani was involved in all the events I have mentioned. He was with us on the defensive line in Shouz, attended our meetings, and played an active role throughout the events.
Sheesha Media: What were the duties and responsibilities of Haji Zabihullah, the person you mentioned who had blocked the road?
General Azimi: He had no significant duties over the past year. Initially, he served as the commander of our five borders brigade, but later on, he encountered disagreements with Ameer Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan. As a result, he remained at home and spent most of his time there.
Following the retreat of the forces to Shindand, Dr. Sahib Abdullah arrived in Herat and had a meeting with Haji Zabihullah, during which he provided him with financial assistance. Haji Zabihullah was known for his exceptional bravery and kind-heartedness. At the peak of his power, he commanded a force of two to three thousand soldiers. Despite being illiterate, he was known for his management and resourcefulness. He had strong leadership and organizational abilities, given his tribal and local standards.
Haji Zabihullah participated in the Zindajan War alongside Ameer Sahib, one of the famous battles fought by the Herat Mujahideen against the Russian forces and later against Dr. Najib’s government. During the conflict, a disagreement arose between Haji Zabihullah and Ameer Sahib, of which I am aware. That dispute led to Ameer Sahib becoming deeply upset with Haji Zabihullah.
Afterward, we went to Mashhad, and Dr. Sahib Abdullah assumed financial responsibility and provision of supplies for the guerrilla fronts that emerged later on, on behalf of the central authorities.
Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan opted for a reclusive lifestyle. In reality, he was restricted from leaving his residence in Mashhad, and those who wished to visit him were carefully screened, with only selected few getting permission to see him. As a result, I refrained from calling him.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall, I gave an interview in which I made it abundantly clear that the blame for the collapse rests solely with Mohammad Ismail Khan himself. During the interview, I was very explicit in pointing out that the failure of Mohammad Ismail Khan and his followers was due to their lack of effective management and leadership. They had failed to allow for any advances in Farah and had neglected to bring experienced commanders from Herat to assist them when they finally decided to undertake operations. Furthermore, they had failed to effectively coordinate with the central authorities, among other factors.
In the same interview, I also revealed that Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan had conveyed to his troops stationed around Gershak that the capture of a province did not require the involvement of commanders from Urban Heratis. This demonstrated his intention to claim sole credit for the defeat of the Taliban and the capture of provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar and to solely credit the commanders who hailed from the Chaharmahal Shindand villages.
During the interview, I used the term “childish” to describe the actions of Mohammad Ismail Khan and his followers, which may not have been the most appropriate choice of words. However, I was understandably upset then, as we had suffered a significant defeat at the hands of a relatively inexperienced group.
It is a fact that when the central government moved its delegation to Herat and began interfering with the province’s affairs, Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan chose to leave everything to fate. He believed that since the central government intended to sideline him, he could not control the crisis, so he decided to step back.
Following the troops’ retreat to Shindand and Dr. Sahib Abdullah’s arrival, Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan failed to take any significant steps to address the crisis. Instead, he relied on the central government to solve the problem, but unfortunately, no meaningful action was taken from the center, and the harsh situation persisted.
To clarify, it seems that Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan chose to disengage from the crisis in Herat after the central government intervened, essentially leaving it to be resolved by the center alone. Following the fall of General Sahib Alauddin Khan, Ameer Sahib collaborated with one of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps generals to establish a new front in Badghis.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us how long it was after the fall of Herat?
General Azimi: It had been almost a month since the fall. However, I refused to collaborate with General Sahib Alauddin Khan, stating that we had failed despite having numerous opportunities and being on the verge of a significant triumph. I told him we cannot achieve much with just a few hundred individuals. I felt incredibly disheartened.
The Norzi people inhabit numerous border areas between Iran and Afghanistan. Specifically, the Norzai people reside in the border region that extends from Herat province to Gulran. Within Gulran, the Norzais primarily live in the locality of Sharband, while the tribe’s residence extends from Sharband to Turghandi and Badghis—all of these regions are located in the northern portion of Herat province.
It was evident that the Noorzayis were collaborating with the Taliban during the conflict rather than with us. I also told General Sahib Alauddin Khan that engaging in battle in these border regions would not be feasible given the prevailing circumstances.
As a result, a group of our allies who embarked on a mission to Islam Qala were unsuccessful and had to retreat to Iranian territory. They had advanced ten kilometers into Islam Qala, a customs area, but quickly realized they could not sustain their position and thus had to return.
Sheesha Media: Could you please share with us the details surrounding the death of General Alauddin Khan, who you previously mentioned began guerrilla warfare against the Taliban in the southwestern provinces following the fall of Herat?
General Azimi: ACommander Ghulam Sarwar and Commander Ghazi Mohammad were the first to initiate guerrilla warfare after the city’s fall. They established a base in Ghor by passing through Dahanai Zulfikar. General Qazi Mohammad Askar headed the first guerrilla front formed in the southwest region following the collapse of Herat. As for the story behind General Alauddin Khan’s death, I do not have any information on that at this time.
Sheesha Media: Hadn’t Kabul fallen yet?
General Azimi: No, Kabul had not fallen yet. Alauddin Khan formed the second front, and subsequently, following the downfall of Kabul, Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan established a different front. During his absence, Mirwais Sadegh, his son, assumed leadership of this front.
Later, Ambassador Khairullah Khairkhah and Commander Gholam Sarwar joined me to establish a distinct resistance front.
The assassination of Alauddin Khan, similar to that of General Nasir Ahmad Khan, remains a matter of ambiguity. Some individuals attribute blame to Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan, alleging that he ordered the killing of Alauddin Khan. Nevertheless, there is no substantiating evidence or proof to support this claim. Moreover, the individual responsible for shooting General Sahib Alauddin Khan was also killed elsewhere.
After escaping from the Taliban prison, Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan relocated to Badghis and collaborated with General Zahir Naibzada to construct a new front in the region. In the absence of both leaders, his son, Mirwais Sadiqhe, led the front.
Following September 11, Zahir Naibzadeh assumed the position of commander for the 17th Battalion of Herat. Subsequently, a military conflict erupted between him and Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan regarding the death of Mirwais Sadegh.
In the aftermath of September 11 and the collapse of the first Taliban government, the forces of our front and that of General Qazi Mohammad arrived in Herat before the troops of Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan, assuming responsibility for security in the region.
Indeed, I arrived in Herat alongside the late Mirwais Jan Sadegh, and we reached the city before Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan. Nonetheless, as mentioned earlier, that is another story.
Sheesha Media: I would like you to elaborate on the following: According to your account, the former president warned the Herat ministers in Kabul that they would lose their positions if they did not prevent the fall of Herat. Subsequently, the central government sent these same ministers to Herat with Dr. Abdullah, even though they had not been appointed to the cabinet at the behest of Ameer Mohammad Ismail Khan and had previously opposed him. You assert in your book that when these ministers arrived in Herat, Ameer Mohammad Ismail Khan felt sidelined and believed that the delegation from the central government had taken control and might even replace him with Alauddin Khan. Consequently, he shirked responsibility from his position. He claimed that, given the central government’s takeover, they had to manage the crisis and did not make any serious efforts to prevent the fall of Herat and control the situation. Is this the complete truth, or is there more to the story unrevealed?
General Azimi: My impression, as well as that of most of those responsible in Herat at that time, was almost identical. Ameer Sahib did not explicitly state in any meeting that he was shirking responsibility and that the central authority was responsible for their deeds. However, that was the general impression held by many.
When Ameer Sahib met with Dr. Abdullah during the delegation’s visit to Shindand, he was noticeably agitated, angry, and disappointed.
There were several reasons for Ameer Sahib’s strong reaction. One was the presence of Mr. Sayed Nurullah Emad in the delegation. Mr. Emad, accompanied by the Herati ministers, had a history of conflicts with Ameer Sahib Ismail Khan. Additionally, Amir Sahib did not trust in the Herati ministers because he believed they roamed around Mr. Emad.
Although Mr. Deljo Hosseini attempted to portray himself as independent from Mr. Emad, Ameer Sahib did not place any trust in him either. The Herati ministers had historically opposed Ameer Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan, challenging him at various points during the Jihad and in the following period.
It is worth noting that Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan never interfered in the affairs of the central government. To the best of my recollection, Amir Sahib never ordered anyone from Herat to be appointed as a minister in the central government, nor did he prevent the appointment of any specific individuals to these positions. However, there were two exceptions: on separate occasions, he ordered the appointment of a consul and an ambassador to Turkmenistan from Herat, and the central government accepted his requests.
Except for those two cases, Ameer Sahib never requested that the central government replace his opponents with individuals who supported him. He also expected that the central government would not intervene in his affairs.
Sheesha Media: Apparently, the reason behind the withdrawal of the Kandahari fighters, who made up the leading force in the Lashkargah operation, remains unknown and unclear to you. You mentioned not being present on the battlefield that day. Did you discover any specific details when you investigated later?
General Azimi: Yes, I was not involved in that operation. As I previously explained, no urban Hearti commanders were present during the assault except for Sharif Jan Yalani. I heard the account directly from him. It was a common perception that Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan’s decisions caused disagreements and that the central government had also intervened.
At that time, we believed it was unacceptable for both President Ustad Rabbani and Amer Sahib Massoud, may they rest in peace, that Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan moves his troops and seize control of Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul, as well as making decisions in all these provinces without coordinating with the central government. They felt it was unacceptable that Ameer Sahib expanded the scope of his rule and entered Kabul as a conqueror and absolute ruler of a significant portion of the country.
Other officials of the southwest region and I thought the central government did not want to see Amir Sahib in that position. Given the mentality and character of the personalities I mentioned, it was unacceptable for them to see Amir Muhammad Ismail Khan become the undisputed ruler of a large part of the country’s territory by anyone. Certainly, Ameer Sahib’s behavior also added to the center’s concerns.
As I previously mentioned, when Sharif Jan Yaftali suggested speaking with Ustad Rabbani and Amer Sahib Masoud on the way to Lashkargah, Ameer Sahib said he would talk to them directly.
When he said ‘talking directly,’ he referred to his plan to travel through the path of victory to reach Kabul, where he would assume the role of a triumphant conqueror and ruler of a significant portion of the country. General Sahib Sharif Yalani, the commander of Herat’s Four Armored Forces then, similarly recounted this anecdote.
Another evident fact at the time was that the relationship between the people of Kandahar and Helmand with Kabul was very cordial. I even mentioned that Ghafar Akhundzadeh had good relations with Kabul and maintained a warm relationship with Amer Sahib Masoud. Now, I can confidently state that the people of Kandahar had more cordial relations with Kabul than those of Helmand.
Many people in the Southwest Region believed that Ameer Sahib’s plan failed due to the central government’s intervention. In other words, the center had ordered the Kandaharis to retreat.
Sheesha Media: Have you heard about Dr. Abdullah’s report after the fall of Herat, in which he allegedly held Ameer Mohammad Ismail Khan responsible for the collapse of the Southwestern Region? There was a rumor that the content of his report matched what you stated in your interview. Do you have any knowledge of this matter? Additionally, there have been speculations that the strained relationship between Mohammad Ismail Khan and Dr. Abdullah’s election camps for the past two decades could contribute to this issue.
General Azimi: Yes. Dr. Abdullah’s report was consistent with the information I provided in my interview. I compiled a book titled “Critical Moments,” including transcripts of my interview, General Sahib Alauddin Khan’s interview, and several others. The content of the report above and the interviews were identical. Regrettably, the book in which they were published, “Critical Moments,” is currently unavailable as it was quickly sold out upon its release.
The book “How Did the Taliban Come?” was sold soon after its publication in Iran in 1377. If you recall, during that year, the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats and a journalist immediately after entering Mazar-e-Sharif. This incident had a significant impact widely reported in Iran.
The Taliban was a relatively unknown group to the people of Iran at the time, and they had little knowledge about them. As a result, my book, published in 1377, quickly sold out in the Iranian book market due to high demand from individuals seeking to learn more about this new group.
Indeed, the Iranian people were curious about the Taliban and sought to gain knowledge about them. The Iranian people were unfamiliar with the term “Taliban” at the time. In Iran, the Arabic word “talabeh” is commonly used to refer to a religious student instead of “talib.”
I submitted the manuscript for my book for printing in 1377 and handed it over to the publisher. However, the permission to print the book was granted in Asad of that year, which is why it was published around the same time as the murder of Iranian diplomats and journalists in Mazar-e-Sharif.
In Iran, the book printing process involves several lengthy steps, and the Ministry of Culture closely inspects the content of each book before granting the necessary licenses for publication. However, due to high demand, the book disappeared from the market entirely within the first week of its release.
In Iran, people were eager to learn more about the murder of Iranian diplomats, and when they saw the title of my book in bookstores, they purchased it without hesitation. The same level of interest was observed in the book “Critical Moments,” which had a similar theme.
Indeed, Dr. Sahib Abdullah’s report was highly critical of Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and his handling of the situation in the Southwestern Region. Following the account and the subsequent resistance against the Taliban, Ameer Sahib Muhammad Ismail Khan continued to oppose Dr. Abdullah.
The disagreements and opposition between Ameer Sahib Mohammad Ismail Khan and Dr. Sahib Abdullah continued until the fall of the first Taliban government. However, the exact reasons why Ameer Sahib did not participate in Dr. Abdullah’s election campaigns are unclear. While there were rumors that the rift between them was a factor, I cannot confirm or deny the veracity of these claims. What is certain is that their differences were intense, especially during the period of resistance against the Taliban.
Sheesha Media: Can you confirm the integrity of the claim that General Najim Khan’s forces, who arrived from Kabul, sustained more casualties than other forces on the day of the fall of Herat?
General Azimi: All forces sustained significant casualties, but they suffered greater losses, partly due to their unfamiliarity with the terrain, as they became trapped within the city near the Herat province building at night subsequently ambushed by the Taliban.
During the ambush, many individuals lost their lives and became martyrs. Their bodies were left behind, and the following night, as the residents of Herat emerged from their homes, they came across these deceased corpses. As a result, their losses were notably conspicuous and apparent. However, it is essential to note that during the troops’ retreat from Lashkargah to Shindand and Herat, they encountered casualties throughout the entire route, which spans over 400 kilometers.
The Uzbeks, the Helmands, and the Heratis all sustained substantial losses. However, I confirm that the number of martyrs from Kabul was greater than that of other forces.
Sheesha Media: You said that once, a plane probably came from Kandahar and bombarded the forces of the Southwestern Region in Helmand. Did you know any air force officers in Kandahar who may have joined the forces that bombed the Southwestern Region in Helmand from a plane that allegedly came from Kandahar? There may have been some prior relations between Shindand Airport and Kandahar Airport before the Taliban seized control of Kandahar.
General Azimi: I forgot to mention an important point. Specifically, General Dostum’s planes attacked Herat during the retreat of the Southwest Region forces from Helmand to Shindand. During this stage, General Dostum’s air force supported the Taliban. We knew that two MiG-17 warplanes were at Kandahar Air Field. However, the troops stationed in Helmand that day could not discern whether the incoming plane originated from Kandahar or Mazar.
If the planes had originated from Mazar, I am sure that at least one would not have been dispatched. Back then, it was not customary to utilize one single plane to bomb a location. I briefly served as the supervisor of Shindand airfield while also holding the position of military commissar of Herat. During this time, I gained a reasonable understanding of the principles and regulations of the Air Force. It was uncommon for planes to operate on a single for bombardment.
Due to the abundance of planes within General Dostum’s Movement, it was typical for one or more pairs of aircraft to be dispatched when they bombarded Herat. Although I was not present on the battlefield, this plane may have originated from Kandahar.
Sheesha Media: At what point did the Dustom’s Movement bomb Herat during the final defeat?
General Azimi: The bombing occurred during the stage of retreat. As our forces withdrew and settled in Shindand, they bombed us several times.
Sheesha Media: Did these bombings have an impact on the morale and defeat of the Southwest Region?
General Azimi: Absolutely. These bombings caused both military and civilian casualtiest.
Sheesha Media: A Dutch journalist, named Bette Dam, has authored a biography of Mullah Mohammed Omar, in which she claims that the news of Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan’s forces advancing towards Helmand had greatly scared Mullah Mohammad Omar. According to her account, after getting the news about Amir Ismiel Khan’s assault, Mullah Omar went to the Kandahar airfield, where he forced one of two fighter jets to take off and bomb the advancing forces. The pilot protested that his aircraft was faulty and that even if he could take off, he had no bombs and could not do anything. According to Dam, Mullah Omar then began to pray and implored the pilot to take off, promising that he would fly without any issues and drop bombs. The jet eventually took off and followed suit. Your comments suggest that Dam’s account is likely accurate and exposes the anxiety and fear of the Taliban. Were you also aware of the Taliban leaders’ panic during this time?
General Azimi: The information in this report is most likely accurate. We had detailed information of the panic and confusion of the Taliban leadership which is entirely true. However, our internal disputes proved to be our downfall. Had there been no disagreements between the central government and Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan, as well as the disputes within the Southwestern Region leaders, such as Helmand and Kandahar, these provinces would have easily fallen into the hands of the Joint Forces of the Southwestern Region and the Kandahari and Helmandi fighters. Unfortunately, our disagreements led to our heavy defeat. Amir Sahib had disagreements with the central government, and as I previously explained, with the entire group of commanders from Herat. Our disputes ultimately led to the Taliban’s victory and our defeat.
Sheesha Media: In our previous discussion, you mentioned that, as the city was about to fall, Amir Mohammad Esmaiel Khan believed that the central government would appoint General Ala-ul-Din Khan instead of him. You also mentioned that General Ala-ul-Din Khan was injured during the first Taliban attack on the Southwest Region forces in Sanglani, and had returned from India just a month before the fall of Herat. I am curious if there were any pre-existing disputes between the two, or if the conflict arose only in the final stages.
General Azimi: General Ala Udin Khan was not a man driven by ambition. His personality was one of courage and bravery, with a calm and attentive demeanor. While he did not speak much, he was a good listener and had a simple nature that made him amenable to being convinced to take on roles of responsibility, such as Core Commander and he would accept it.
After spending several months in India for medical treatment, General Ala Udin Khan returned to Kabul, where he may have been encouraged to seek a higher position. I hold such a view because, from India, he came to Kabul, where he remained for some time, spoke with Amir Sahib Masoud and Professor Rabani.
Returning to Herat, it was clear that he was not pleased with Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan. At the time of his arrival in Herat, forces had not yet moved to Helmand, and he was still in recovery and not very active. However, as the forces moved to Helmand and were subsequently defeated, General Ala Udin Khan’s health began to improve. As the fall of the government approached, he was able to move around more freely.
When the Kabul delegation arrived, though he could not walk for extended periods, he still made his presence felt, but could not walk for long hours. On the final day, where he made a symbolic appearance in Shabid, he wished to reassure others of his presence.
Sheesha Media: You mentioned that after the troops retreated to Shindand, Dr. Abdullah appeared in Herat with some of his Herati ministers and met with commanders, including yourself, who were dissatisfied with Ismaiel Khan’s leadership. What specific issues did he raise during the meeting?
General Azimi: As I had successfully commanded the Shuoz front, my military rank had become influential. I was then instructed to take on the responsibility of commanding the Shin-Dand front. He told me that other Herati commanders were also willing to go. So I was to join them and build a defensive line similar to that of the Shuoz and Abi Khurma fronts and take its command. I accepted the responsibility and was ready to go.
As was his custom, he gave money to the commanders he met, and I was no exception. However, when I arrived at Shin-Dand, the forces were defeated and retreated to Shahbid. I went to Shahbeyd at the request of Amir Sahib Ismaiel Khan, but by the time I arrived, the work was already done, and Amir Saheb did not accept my recommendations.
Sheesha Media: During your talks, you mentioned that when the President asked you to go to Helmand with the forces stationed in Farah and conquer it, you explained that it would be impossible without the support of Amir Mohammad Ismaiel Khan. You argued that without his support, the air force and artillery would not be able to act effectively. I’m curious, did the central government persist with this plan or were they convinced by your argument?
General Azimi: There was a sense of urgency as we took Farah, and I immediately ordered the distribution of ammunition and rations from the logistics unit to be shared among our forces. Once the soldiers had consumed their supplies, I instructed all forces to gather in the eastern regions of Farah Province and move towards Helmand Province.
My order was based solely on military principles, without any political considerations. My aim was to prevent the enemy from gaining any foothold and to drive them out of the battle line by not giving them any time to think. However, Amir Sahib Mohammed Ismaiel Khan became upset and sent me to Herat, sidelining me from commanding the forces.
The commanders of the Kandahari, Helmandi, and Uzbek forces who were going back and forth to Kabul and reporting their own accounts and receiving financial resources for their own expenses had reported to the central government that General Azimi had moved the forces towards Helmand, but Ismaiel Khan opposed it.
I was away from the battlefield for over a month until Amir Sahib Mohammed Ismaiel Khan sent me back to Farah to lead the forces again. I assume that I haven’t told you the whole story. When Professor Rabani came to Farah, he first met with me privately and then asked for Aref Khan Nurzai, Ghaffar Akhundzada, and Abdul Manaf Khan Ozbak to attend the session. In their presence, he instructed me to take Helmand.
I was frank with the then President that we could not take Helmand without Amir Sahib’s support because, without his guidance, the air force and artillery of the Southwest Region would not assist us. However, when I reported the council’s plan to Amir Sahib, he did not believe me and sent me away from the battlefield once again, this time to Herat.
Sheesha Media: It seems that the central government was unconcerned with the advancing forces and even welcomed their progress. It appears that they were not troubled by Ismaiel Khan’s influence and absolute rule over a portion of the country either. Perhaps they believed they had the situation under control and could easily “determine” the state of affairs in provinces outside of Taliban control. However, two months later, when they were not on the battlefield and Amir Ismaiel Khan had apparently gained full control and sought to “determine” the situation without coordinating with Kabul, the central government became concerned and did not even desire a military victory. Is this also your interpretation of the events?
General Azimi: That’s correct. Initially, the central government did not expect us to capture Farah. They believed we would not take offensive position in Shouz and Abi Khurma. When we attacked and secured Farah, the Center was not even aware until later that day. Back then, communication technology was not advanced enough to report events as they occurred. Instead, we were only able to communicate with the Center through the “Zas” system. Once Farah was secured, we immediately informed the central government. However, before I could do so, I had the opportunity to speak with BBC Farsi. Kabul also learned of the change in Farah through that interview.
When we captured Farah, Sayyid Tokal, who had previously worked with the Islamic Movement under Mr. Mohseni and was in contact with me, came to Farah and informed me that the Taliban were in full retreat in Helmand and had vacated some areas in panick. Additionally, we had a Commander named Sarkatib, who was also a member of Harakati Islami, as myself. He came to me on a motorcycle and reported that the Taliban were removing their excess ammunition and supplies from Helmand. These trusted allies had been in contact with me during my time as the leader of the Shindand Defense Front.
The information provided by these contacts led me to the conclusion that it was time to pursue the enemy until the very end. I was certain that if we were able to take Helmand, there would be no significant resistance in Kandahar. This was a natural military strategy, as taking Farah, Badghis, and Shindand would result in a lack of significant resistance in Herat. The same held true for Kabul. When the surrounding provinces were captured, Kabul fell without a fight. In the history of wars surrounding Kabul, when an outsider had attempted to take the city, capturing the surrounding provinces resulted in no resistance. Although victorious forces often fought amongst themselves inside the city, an external force that had control over the surrounding provinces could take Kabul without any resistance.
Sheesha Media: There is a story that when Amir Ismaiel Khan halted the advance of forces towards Helmand and you were alos moved from the battlefield to Herat, the Taliban offered to negotiate and cease fire with the authorities in Herat. Was the Kabul government not interested in a cease-fire, or it was Amir Mohammad Ismaiel Khan who opposed it? What was the case?
General Azimi: I do not have precise information on this matter. By the time I had moved from Farah to Herat, I was no longer involved in these affairs. At that time, Amir Sahib and I were as distances that he would not pay my monthly salary. Some financial assistance from the central government helped me feed my family.
Sheesha Media: Now, let’s delve into some key individuals involved in the conflict. Beginning with Nasir Ahmad, the commander of the Shin district garrison. At times, you have referred to him as General Nasir Ahmad or Dr. Nasir Ahmad. Could you elaborate on his role in these military operations and ranking?
General Azimi: General Nasir Ahmad, or Dr. Nasir Ahmad, was an exceptionally capable and experienced commander with a brilliant mind. He began his studies in medicine, though the extent of his education in the field remains unknown. Despite this, he was often referred to as “Doctor.” His father, General Azizullah Khan, was also a skilled commander and one of the officers prior to the April coup of the PDPA. General Nasir Ahmad led one of the most significant operations against Soviet forces in the Shindand district. In this operation, he launched a surprise attack on the Shindand airfield and destroyed 21 Russian fighters and helicopter jets in a single night. He was born in Chahar Mahal area in the Shindand district and was related to Amir Sahib Ismaiel Khan, who held a great deal of trust in him.
Sheesha Media: You said it was not clear who killed him during the advance towards Helmand that ultimately resulted in defeat?
General Azimi: Yes, the only thing that’s clear is that he was killed by our own forces, not as a result of enemy’s fire. No stranger forces were present in the area where he was killed.
Sheesha Media: What was the role of General Sharif Yalani and what was his major responsibility?
General Azimi: He was the commander of our four armored forces. He was an old Mujahideen of Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan. We shared a strong bond. He was born in Gozara district of Herat and during the Jihad against the Russians, he was one of the most famous and well-known commanders.
Sheesha Media: From what you’ve said, it’s apparent that he understood the disputes and sensitivities between Kabul and the Southwest Region, and from his advice to Amir Mohammad Ismaiel Khan, it seems that he wanted to resolve those disputes.
General Azimi: Exactly. He told me the story and explained that he first advised Amir Sahib to talk to Amir Saheb Masoud. In response, Amir Sahib said, “Let’s see what happens.” Later, General Sharif Yalani realized that Amir Sahib did not want to talk to Masoud, so he advised him to talk to Baba himself. By Baba, he meant Ustad Rabani. Amir Sahib replied that he would talk to them in person.
Sheesha Media: What was the full name of Mr. Afzali, and what were his duties?
General Azimi: Mr. Azizullah Afzali was another general and the brother of martyr Safiullah Afzali. His brother, Hafizullah Afzali, was with Amir Sahib Masoud in Panjshir during the military movement against Dawood Khan in 1973 and was martyred. That’s why their fronts were known as the fronts of Shahid Afzali during the Jihad. They both graduated from the Military University in the field of fortification. Before the fall of Herat to the Taliban in 1995, Mr. Afzali served as the security commander of that province.
Sheesha Media: Who were the other prominent figures in Herat’s military formations?
General Azimi: General Ala Udin Khan commanded the 17th faction in Herat, while Amir Sahib led the Core directly. Dr. Nasir Ahmad’s father, General Sahib Azizullah Khan, served as the army’s deputy. Sharif Jan Yalani commanded the fourth armoured forces, while General Abdul Zaher served as our national security chief.
General Majid Khan was in charge of the Herat Airfield, and I myself served as a military commissioner. Dr. Nasir Ahmad was responsible for the Shin Dand garrison, and Karim Jan commanded the 7th Border Brigade until he was killed by the Taliban. General Qazi Mohammad Asker led the 21st faction as its acting head, even though he was officially the deputy of the faction.
Mohammad Shah Achakzai commanded the 71st faction, but he was assassinated in Iran after the fall of Herat to the Taliban, and it is not clear who killed him. Ghafoor Akhundzada’s forces were organized into the 91st faction, which he himself commanded.
General Jalil Khan, also known as Zabet Jalil, was the commander of Farah security, but he sometimes surrendered to the Taliban and sometimes joined us. One of our Baloch patriots commanded the 9th Border Brigade, but I cannot recall his name.
Sheesha Media: According to sources, Colonel Imam, also known as Sultan Ahmad Tarar, played a pivotal role in facilitating talks between the Taliban and Amir Mohammad Ismaiel Khan. A veteran of the Pakistani armed forces’ central intelligence agency, the ISI, Colonel Imam was stationed in Herat as part of the Pakistani Council General at that time. He was present on the same Pakistani trade caravan that was stopped by Commander Lalai in Kandahar in October 1994.
Were you aware of Colonel Imam’s negotiations and discussions with Amir Mohammad Ismaiel Khan? Did you have any personal interaction with him?
General Azimi: Yes, I had seen him many times. He was a familiar face at most official events, often invited and he would attend. Back then, I was working not only in the military units but also in cultural sections. For instance, I was the coordinator of all the celebrations held in Herat. The Herat Islamic Council, which I mentioned earlier, was where I served as the head of the political committee.
Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan often entrusted me with political and cultural work, which gave me the opportunity to encounter Colonel Imam frequently. Specifically, I saw him during the events we held. However, I never had a private meeting with him nor saw him alone or in pairs. In Herat, as you mentioned, he was the Pakistani General Consulate. During his mission in Herat, he undoubtedly assessed our strengths and weaknesses.
I should also mention that Colonel Imam had a personal friendship with Amir Sahib. Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan is a Sufi, and they fasted many days, recited zikr, had a long Tasbih (Rosary) and held a collective zikr at night on Fridays at Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Colonel Imam also went to Khwaja Abdullah Ansari every Friday night and recited zikr. When he arrived in Herat, I recall he had a short beard, but gradually, like Amir Sahib, he grew out his beard, found the large Tasbih, and went to Khwaja Abdullah Ansari on Friday nights. Firstly, he did have turban, but after a while, he tied a white turban to his head. This means that his appearance was very similar to Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan. They became friends as a result.
Of course, only God knows what is in everyone’s hearts, including Amir Sahib Mohammad Ismaiel Khan, but it was evident that they had a very good relationship. I remember once when General Nasirullah Babar came, Sartaj Aziz accompanied him. The same person who later became the national security adviser to Nawaz Sharif. I was present at that conversation.
Babar and his companions told Amir Sahib that if he coordinated with the Taliban, the same security that exists in Kandahar and Herat would increase, and this could be a model for all of Afghanistan to bring security to the entire country. Apart from this proposal, they did not have any specific suggestions. Of course, at that time, conditions were not favorable for them to suggest anything other than this, and the Taliban were just beginning to emerge. There was no logical message other than this that they conveyed.
Sheesha Media: There is a story that Naseerullah Babar once brought a group of Western diplomats from Kandahar to Herat by car to meet with Amir Mohammad Ismaiel Khan. Do you recall this event?
General Azimi: No, I don’t recall General Babar ever bringing Western diplomats to Herat. In the trip I mentioned earlier, General Babar had come to Herat with the Sar Taj Aziz and one other person, making a total of three people.
Sheesha Midya: It is rumored that General Babar visited Herat with diplomats and informed Amir Mohammad Ismail Khan that he had brought them to show the route from Kandahar to Herat. Pakistan intended to borrow or obtain roughly three hundred million dollars from donor countries and international institutions to rebuild the Qandahar-Herat-Torghundi highway. This would allow Pakistani trade caravans to travel easily through the Kandahar-Herat route and transport Pakistani goods to the markets of Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries.
In late October 1994 or early November, when the Taliban were taking over Qandahar, General Dostum and Mohammad Ismaiel Khan had a detailed meeting with Benazir Bhutto, the then-Prime Minister of Pakistan, to discuss transit of energy and Pakistani goods from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and vice versa. There are detailed reports on this. Were you aware of this?
General Azimi: There were many discussions regarding transit, especiallly about transit from Kandahar to Turkmenistan. There were also talks about road security, construction, and the transfer of gas and oil from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. It was often highlighted that energy transit projects are highly effective for the development of regional countries. However, I cannot recall whether General Nasirullah Babar ever brought Western diplomats with him to Herat. During the trip I mentioned, all three members of the Pakistani delegation were present. If General Babar had brought Western diplomats with him on any other trip, I am unaware, as there were times when I was absent from Herat. If he came in my absence, I would not have known.
Sheesha Media: You mentioned that Mullah Obaidullah claimed Mawlawi Khudadad, head of the Herat court, pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar during negotiations. It is also alleged that Mawlawi Jalilullah Mawlawizada, a prominent Mawlawi from Herat and a cabinet minister at the time, was assigned by the then-president to negotiate with the Taliban, but instead pledged allegiance to their leader during negotiations. Were you aware of this? Did these pledges of allegiance contribute to the weakening of Herat at the time?
General Azimi: Mullah Obaidullah Akhund was a chivalric and gallant man. Although he was our prisoner, his personality had a profound impact on me, and we developed an unexpected bond. I made sure he wasn’t tortured at the National Security Directorate, and even convinced Dr. Abdul Zaher to spare him from any torture and ill-treatmnt.
As I mentioned earlier, once I took him to Amir Saheb’s house for an interview with the BBC. I didn’t inform him beforehand that he was going to be interviewed by the BBC. Once we arrived at Amir Saheb’s house and sat down, I told thim that I was gooing to interview with the BBC and asked him also to speak a few words.
I had already arranged with the BBC. Mullah Obaidullah asked me what he should say. I told him to say whatever he felt, but he refused to speak. He said that he would rather be killed than speak to the BBC. We only wanted his voice to be heard so that people believed that he wasn’t tortured and was with us. We were a little disappointed by his behavior; we had treated him like a guest and expected him to at least speak once.
After leaving Amir Saheb’s house, I brought him back to my house for tea. I was asked to accompany him back to the National Security Directorate. While we were having tea, he told me that I treated him like a guest, not a war prisoner. In response to such a kindness, he said that he would reveal an important matter to Amir Saheb.
We contacted Amir Saheb via Zas from the Corps Headquarter. We went from my residence to Corps Headquarter to contact Amir Saheb. Our confidential communications were always provided through Zas. Amir Saheb told Mullah Obaidullah Akhund to relay his information to Zahirjan. He revealed that the delegation of religious scholars from Herat that we had sent to Kandahar had pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar. All prominent Malawis of Herat, including Malawi Sami and Molawi Shirzad and others, headed by Mawlawi Khudadad had pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Supreme Mualla.
Amir Saheb Ismaiel Khan had sent these well-known Herat scholars to the Taliban to convince them that the war against the Southwest Region was un-Islamic. However, during the discussion, they had pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar. Until we took Mullah Obaidullah Akhund into custody, we were unaware of this incident. Malawi Jalilullah was also doing a lot of propaganda for the Taliban. The allegiance of these scholars to the Taliban and their indirect propaganda for the benefit of the Taliban had caused us serious problems.
When our forces initially retreated to Shouz and Abi Khorma, I was appointed as the commander of the defensive line. However, upon arriving, it became immediately clear that the morale of our troops was broken. We were facing the Taliban, a formidable foe whose fighters were known to be devout and pious and there was a widespread rumor that they were wearing copies of the Quran around their necks. Many of our troops were taken in by their propaganda, believing that the Taliban fighters were somehow immune to harm and no bullets could shoot them down.
At the Shouz defensive line, we were able to halt the Taliban’s advance with the help of mining and air support. This allowed us to demonstrate to our troops that the Taliban fighters were just as vulnerable to mines and bombs as anyone else, and that their supposed invincibility was nothing more than propaganda. Despite this victory, it proved incredibly difficult to eradicate these beliefs from the minds of our troops.
Sheesha Media: At the end of this conversation, is there anything else on your mind that you would like to share with our audience?
General Azimi: I fervently hope that the topics we have discussed today, which are an indelible part of Afghanistan’s history, will serve as a beacon of guidance for the future generations of Afghanistan. I hope that they will learn from our collective follies and weaknesses, and emerge stronger and more resilient.
I would like to conclude by stating that I never intended to depict myself as innocent or faultless in the unfortunate events that took place in Southwestern Region. I acknowledge that in that great defeat, I was as responsible as my level of competence permitted, and for that, I express my deepest apologies.
Sheesha Media: We are grateful for your willingness to engage in this candid conversation with us, and for sharing your insights on one of the most sensitive periods in recent Afghan history. Thank you for your time.