After seven years of exile in Pakistan, Gul Agha Shirzai, the former governor of Kandahar, has, with American military support, resumed his old post. A strong defender of Zahir Shah, the former king, Shirzai commands respect from his troops, and many Pashtuns, for his reputation of cruelty. He is rumored to have threatened to shoot any soldier who did not remain alongside him during the advance on Kandahar, and has reportedly punched some of his soldiers during sporadic temper tantrums.
Shirzai has also been in the spotlight recently for his escalating feud with Tajik warlord Ismael Khan over the perceived harassment and imprisonment of Pashtun traders in Herat province, Ismael Khan's close ties to Iran, and security on the highway between Kandahar and Herat. The spat threatened to develop into a bloody battle at one point, as one of Gul Agha's security advisers claimed to be rounding up 20,000 troops to attack Herat. But he appears to have picked up some lessons in diplomacy along with his new title, opting finally to send a peaceful delegation to Herat instead. NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh met with Shirzai in Quetta, where the governor was shopping for new furnishings for his house in Kandahar.
NEWSWEEK: You recently sent a delegation to Herat to discuss the harassment and imprisonment of Pashtun traders and Ismael Khan's ties to Iran. How did the meeting go?
Gul Agha Shirzai: The meeting wasn't negative or positive. Ismael Khan answered our questions and said he would also have a discussion with Hamid Karzai.
So your differences with Ismael Khan have been resolved?
No, there are still problems. I spoke with the Iranian ambassador in Kabul. I told him his people are in Herat and they're giving inappropriate aid like money and weapons [to Khan]. He said he didn't know anything about these activities. This kind of aid has to be coordinated through the central government. What the Iranians are doing is meddling. Serious meddling.
Do you have any proof that Iran has been giving weapons to Ismael Khan?
Kalashnikovs were brought to Herat. They [Ismael Khan's representatives] say, 'We've got our own customs office. We've got money. We bought these weapons.' What are they doing? The central government should be the one buying weapons. Ismael Khan doesn't have the right to purchase weapons. It's not his responsibility. The central government has the sole responsibility for purchasing and distributing material.
There are rumors of Iranian military personnel in Herat.
They're trying to spread their influence. They're also in Farah and Helmand province. About 120 Americans from the base at Kandahar airport went to Herat. We've also sent some of our own people to Helmand to collect information. The Iranian ambassador said he would to talk to President Khatami to solve this problem. But why are they doing these things? They're a proper government. Why don't they have information about these activities?
Do you think Iran is trying to get the United States military out of Afghanistan?
There's historical animosity between the two countries. But nothing will get solved this way. There has to be dialogue to solve these problems.
What are your thoughts on the American military attack in Urozgan in which 19 people were killed and 27 villagers taken prisoner were later released with an apology from the U.S. military?"
It was a mistake. One group accused another of being Al Qaeda. There was a dispute between two groups in the region. But none of our men were there. There were no military representatives from Kandahar. I talked to Col. [Tommy] Franks and said, 'In order to prevent mistakes in the future you should have our men with you.' Insha' allah, ["by the will of God"] these mistakes won't happen again in the future.
Hamid Karzai recently appointed Taj Mohammad Wardak as the new governor of Paktia province because the former governor, Padshah Khan Zadran, tried to take power by force. What do you think of the new appointment?
Padshah Khan is an immoral man. He had no right to do what he did. I told the interim administration not to let him go into Gardez [the capital of Paktia province] by force, that it would create problems. But he said 'no, we're taking Gardez by force.' So he went and people were killed unnecessarily. But the problem has been solved now.
A complete ban on the cultivation, production and trafficking of narcotics was recently announced by the interim administration. Do you have any plans to destroy the poppy fields in Helmand or Kandahar?
The United Nations has pledged to help us. We will work with them with full support. It's our Islamic duty.