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U.S. forces managed to kill Ghulam Yahya Akbari, but at what cost?

SIYAWOOSHAN VILLAGE, Afghanistan — Thousands wept as Ghulam Yahya Akbari, rebel commander extraordinaire, was laid to rest beside the mosque that he had built in Paichenar, near his native village of Siyawooshan, in Herat Province.

SIYAWOOSHAN VILLAGE, Afghanistan — Thousands wept as Ghulam Yahya Akbari, rebel commander extraordinaire, was laid to rest beside the mosque that he had built in Paichenar, near his native village of Siyawooshan, in Herat Province. Women wailed from the rooftops, as a long procession of over 5,000 accompanied his body to the grave site.

Yahya was killed in a raid by U.S. and Afghan forces on Oct. 8. For the past year he had been the target of numerous American efforts to neutralize him and his fighters, who, by most accounts, never numbered more than 200.

But until he found himself firmly in U.S. sights, Yahya was just one of many rebel commanders in western Afghanistan, little known outside his native Gozara district. Repeated U.S. assassination attempts conferred upon him a certain notoriety.

He did not belong to the Pashtun majority, and was dubbed “the Tajik Taliban” by the media. But Yahya was not a Taliban commander; still less was he a global jihadist. He was a disgruntled former civil servant who decided to rebel against his former employer — the government. He supported himself by kidnapping businessmen for ransom, and occasionally fired rockets at the airport or the nearby U.N. base.

He did share characteristics of the Taliban — a strict interpretation of Islam and an aversion to foreign forces on Afghan soil. Perhaps because of this, he has been linked to every insurgent group from Hezb-e-Islami to Al Qaeda, although he always insisted he was acting on his own.

“We call Ghulam Yahya Akbari an insurgent leader as he seemed to temporarily affiliate himself with other organizations,” said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, media spokesperson for the U.S. Forces Afghanistan. “Yahya was a significant destabilizing force in western Afghanistan, attacking ISAF and Afghan security forces and Afghan civilians almost equally.”

But for his many supporters, Yahya was not a rebel, he was a crusader.

“Ghulam Yahya was against the murdering foreigners who have occupied our country,” said Amrullah, a young resident of Siyawooshan, while tears streamed down his face. “They promised prosperity, but all they did was set Afghans fighting each other.”

Yahya was no Mullah Omar; he had little military influence outside his home district of Gozara. Indeed, he was afforded respect in many circles: Even Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival for president, called Yahya “an honest mujahed” during a campaign stop in Herat in July.

A relative newcomer to the insurgency, Yahya was a government employee up until three years ago.

He had been a mujaheddin fighter during the war against the Soviets, forging a close bond with powerful commander Ismail Khan. When Khan took over as governor of Herat in the early 1990s, he made Yahya mayor of the city. The Taliban victory in 1995 put a sudden end to that job, and Yahya fled to Iran. A few years later he was back, fighting the Taliban.

After the U.S.-led invasion routed the fundamentalists, Ismail Khan resumed his status as “Emir of the West,” and installed his comrade-in-arms as head of the Department of Public Works in Herat. This came at a time when the wily Khan was pulling in close to $1 million per week collecting customs duties from trucks entering Afghanistan through Iran and Turkmenistan. Most of that money stayed in the province, and Herat, under Khan and Yahya, became one the most highly developed cities in the country. Heratis enjoyed 24-hour electricity when most Kabul dwellers were in the dark six nights out of seven.

But Ismail Khan was called to the capital in 2004, and made Minister of Energy. Yahya did not get along with Khan’s replacement as governor, Sayed Hussain Anwari, so in 2006 Yahya was fired as mayor.

This was enough to set the volatile Yahya on a collision course with the government and the foreign forces. He took up arms, formed his own militia and established control of his home district of Gozara, just a dozen or so kilometers from Herat City.

While some chafed under his strict rule, he was respected, even admired, for bringing security to a troubled area. A devout Muslim, he enforced Sharia law, but a kinder, gentler version than the Taliban’s.

“He does not make problems if we watch television or play music,” said Ahmad, who lives in Siyawooshan district. “But if he catches us watching porn, we are punished severely.”

This was entirely in character. As mayor in the 1990s, he was famous for the harsh penalties he inflicted on merchants who exceeded government-imposed price ceilings. He would force them to stand in public thoroughfares with one ear nailed to a board. This may have angered the merchants, but it delighted their customers.

“There were a lot of butchers and bakers with holes in their ears,” laughed one resident.

He was not above a bit of bravado. In January 2009, he claimed responsibility for an attack on a helicopter full of Afghan Army officers, though even the Afghan government says the aircraft crashed into a mountain in heavy fog. In February 2009, the U.S.-led coalition forces attacked Yahya’s “suspected hideout” and promptly announced success.

“A coalition forces precision strike targeted Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a key insurgent commander …” read a U.S. military press release issued on Feb. 17. “Killed in the attack were up to 15 militants suspected of associating with Yahya.”

Within minutes of the attack, Yahya was on the phone to reporters, insisting that he and his men were fine. Instead, the “precision strike” hit an encampment of nomadic Kuchis who had pitched their tents nearby.

Days later, the U.S. military acknowledged its mistake, though it still blamed Yahya.

“This is not the first time the insurgents have taken cover behind innocent civilians,” said Lt.-Col.  Walter Matthews, media spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.

The military  could not explain how Yahya, who at the time was sitting at home waiting for a mechanic to come fix his car, could have been “taking cover” among a mobile community that happened to pitch their tents a few hundred yards from his compound. An officer with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) later admitted privately that the strike had been “a failure of intelligence.”

Yahya was not in hiding then. Journalists in Herat had free access to him, and an Al Jazeera reporter had interviewed him in his home just days before the attack. But after February, Yahya went on the move, and restricted his dealings with the media to telephone conversations.

The U.S. military kept trying to kill him even while the new governor of Herat, Ahmad Yusuf Nooristani, who replaced Anwari in early 2009, was trying to bring Yahya in from the cold.

“I tried a lot to get him to just stop fighting,” Nooristani said. “I told him ‘Look, we won’t bother you. Just lay down your arms. Think of yourself and your family.’ “

Yahya was the father of 12 sons, one of whom, Zekirya, was killed in August, at the age of 25.

In September, radio stations on Herat began broadcasting announcements that the U.S. forces and the Afghan government had placed a price on Yahya’s head — 5 million afghani (or $100,000) for information leading to his capture or death. Both the Afghan government and the U.S. forces denied placing the ad, but it ran for weeks nonetheless.

Perhaps the announcement paid off. The U.S. forces will not say how they learned of Yahya’s whereabouts, in the mountains near Siyawooshan where he made his last stand.

On Thursday, Oct. 8, two helicopter gunships filled with U.S. and Afghan troops attacked Yahya’s base. There was fierce resistance, and Yahya, along with 22 of his men, was killed.

His 16-year-old son, Mohammad Akbar, was present during the battle.

“I carried my father on my shoulders and hid him, so the foreigners would not take his body,” he said.

A Kuchi woman in the area helped Akbar, wrapping the body in an old canvas and hid it in her tent. She also claimed the boy as her own when U.S. forces tried to arrest him.

One eyewitness described the exchange.

“This Kuchi woman screamed ‘where are you taking my son?’ and then the U.S. forces left him,” said the man, who did not want to give his name.

No one can predict what consequences the loss of Yahya will have for the security situation in Herat, which has been deteriorating rapidly. Capt. Mathias declined to speculate, but Brig. Gen. Rosario Castellano, ISAF commander for the Western Region, said that it would have a positive effect.

“(Yahya) was a very dangerous man,” he said.

Engineer Abdurrahman Salahi, a political analyst in Herat, while expressing regret at Yahya’s death, said that it was nevertheless necessary.

“If the government and foreign forces want to bring security to the province, they have to conduct these kinds of operations,” he said.

Others are not so sure.

“The government cannot guarantee that by killing this commander, security will improve,” said Ahmad Shah, 35, a resident of Herat. “There are many other groups fighting against the government in Gozara and other districts.”

For now, Yahya’s men vow to fight on.

“Until our last breath we will carry out Yahya’s wishes,” said one, who did not want to give his name. “That is, expelling the foreign forces from Afghanistan.”