SIYAWOOSHAN VILLAGE, Herat - Over 5,000 men and women accompanied the body,
while more women stood on their balconies and rooftops and wept.
It could have been a hero's funeral; instead, the man being buried was a rebel,
labeled a dangerous insurgent by the government and foreign forces alike.
Ghulam Yahya Akbari was killed on October 8 in a firefight with foreign and
Afghan troops in the hills surrounding Siyawooshan, where he had made his base
in Herat province to the west of the
country. His son confirmed his death. Along with him died 22 of his men - about
10% of his entire fighting force.
It was not an easy battle.
"At first the opposition tried to resist, but we overcame them," said General
Jalandar Shah Behnam, commander of the 207th Zafar corps of the Afghan army.
Yahya was laid to rest in Paichenar, next to a mosque he had built to celebrate
the victory of the mujahideen over the former communist government. That, said
onlookers, had been his wish.
Now all that remains is his complicated legacy: was he a hero, a villain, or a
bit of both?
Yahya was one of the most colorful and controversial figures in western
Afghanistan. He was part of the mujahideen battling the Soviets in the 1980s,
fighting alongside the powerful warlord Ismail Khan. When Ismail Khan took over
in Herat following the collapse of the communist regime in the early 1990s, he
made Yahya the mayor of Herat city, a posting that ended abruptly when the
Taliban reached the capital of western Afghanistan in 1995.
Yahya fled to Iran for a number of years, but soon returned to fight against
the Taliban. In 2001, again under Ismail Khan, he became the head of the
department of public works, but when his patron was called to Kabul in 2004 to
become minister of energy, Yahya's fortunes began to fade.
He did not get on well with the new governor, Sayed Hussain Anwari, who sacked
him in 2006. At this point, the former public servant became an outlaw, and
took up arms against the government of which he had recently been a part. He
was not placated by the departure of Anwari in early 2009; by then he had
become infamous throughout his native district of Gozara, where he established
an administration based on a strict interpretation of sharia law, albeit with
music and television.
Over the past three years, he staged a series of kidnappings, frequently lobbed
rockets at Herat airport, and occasionally at the nearby United Nations base.
He took responsibility for a bombing in August that killed 12 civilians, but he
also claimed that he had shot down a helicopter in January, killing 13 Afghan
army officers, when the Kabul authorities said that the aircraft crashed into a
mountain in heavy fog.
He has been linked to the Taliban, to Hezb-e-Islami, even to al-Qaeda -
although he always insisted that he was operating on his own.
Foreign forces tried repeatedly to kill him, but the wily commander proved
elusive. In February, the United States-led coalition announced that Yahya had
been killed along with 14 of his men; within minutes Yahya was on the phone,
saying that he was fine but a nearby encampment of nomadic Kuchis had been
This summer, radio stations in Herat were broadcasting announcements that US
forces and the Afghan government were offering five million afghani
(US$100,000) for information leading to Yahya's death or capture. Both the
foreign military and the Afghan government denied placing the ad, but it ran
for weeks nevertheless.
Now that he is dead, almost everyone, even the governor of Herat, has expressed
"I put a lot of effort into bringing [Yahya] into the government," said Ahmad
Yusuf Nooristani, who replaced Anwari as governor in early 2009. "I said,
'Think of your family. We won't bother you. Just stop fighting.' But he would
Finally, said Nooristani, his patience ran out. He said that he was under
pressure from the people of Herat to deal with the threat posed by Yahya's
"Security will improve now," he said.
Brigadier General Rosario Castellano, regional commander for the International
Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in western Afghanistan, agreed.
"[Yahya] was a big danger to Herat and to the region," he said.
But Yahya had his supporters, among them presidential candidate Abdullah
Abdullah, who praised the commander as "an honest mujahid" during a campaign
stop in Herat this July.
"He did many good things for the people of Herat when he was mayor," said Abdul
Latif, 65. "He hated corrupt people; he would nail their ears to a board and
make them stand in the street."
Amrullah, a young man, could not speak of Yahya without tears.
"Ghulam Yahya was against these murdering foreigners who have occupied our
country," he said bitterly. "They said they would bring prosperity, but they
just set Afghans fighting against each other."
That certainly seemed to be the case in Chashma Khawani, 22 kilometers south of
Siyawooshan, where Yahya made his last stand on Thursday, October 8. Afghan
army troops were among the forces that approached the area in two helicopter
Yahya's 16-year-old son, Mohammad Akbar, was with his father during the attack.
"I carried him on my shoulders and hid him, so the foreigners would not get his
body," said the young man.
A Kuchi woman in the area wrapped Yahya in an old canvas and placed him under
her own tent, said an eyewitness, who said the woman also told the foreign
troops that Mohammad Akbar was her son.
"The foreigners wanted to take Akbar with them," said the witness, who did not
want to give his name. "But this Kuchi woman said 'Where are you taking my
son?' Then they left."
With Yahya's death, foreign troops and Afghan forces have set up checkpoints in
Siyawooshan, an area that had been off-limits to the Kabul government for over
two years. They have been searching cars and even motorcycles. An Afghan army
soldier said that they had seized two explosive vests in just one day.
The people of Siyawooshan are going about their lives; shops are open, people
are working. But the sadness and anger are apparent on many faces.
"Killing Ghulam Yahya will not make the situation in Herat any better," said
Amanullah, 80. "Many jihadi commanders have been killed, but things just keep
Yahya left a large family; he had 12 sons, one of who, Zekirya, was killed just
two months ago in a raid by foreign forces. He was 25.
With Yahya's death, his men held an emergency meeting to select a new
commander. A deputy, Samiullah Salah Shor, will now try to fill Yahya's shoes.
"We will try until our last breath to carry out the wishes of Ghulam Yahya,"
said one of his men, who would not give his name. "That is to expel the foreign
forces from Afghanistan."