HERAT, AFGHANISTAN // A former member of the US-backed Afghan government is now an insurgent commander in the western province of Herat. Ghulam Yahya seems to rule a vast mountainous area here, with his men launching regular attacks on the police and imposing fundamentalist Islamic law by amputating the limbs of criminals. While visibly concerned that talking to a foreign journalist would put their lives at risk, local residents said they supported his stance.
"Actually, he is not a bad man for the people. There are schools for girls and when a lot of boys were trying to disturb the students, he found out about it and shot them. He also has strict laws and does not like stealing or thieves. If anyone is a robber he will cut off their legs or hands and carry out the Shariah," said Abdul Wasir, 35. Mr Yahya was mayor of Herat before the Taliban captured the city in their rise to power during the 1990s. In the early stages of Hamid Karzai's government, he served as the head of public works, but he took up arms after being removed from the post.
Having been warned that it was too dangerous to travel to his stronghold of Siwoshan, in Gozarah district, The National met residents from there in Herat's provincial capital instead. Although it is impossible to independently verify their claims, they all gave similar accounts of the situation in separate interviews. Mr Yahya was described in almost mythical tones as a vigilante fighting for justice.
Mr Wasir said the government had no control outside the confines of its offices. "Sometimes if there are no police or soldiers around he comes right into the centre of the area," he said. "We even heard that during Eid he came to Siwoshan's main mosque and prayed there." Mr Yahya fought Soviet occupation as a member of Jamiat-e-Islami, which went on to resist Taliban rule. Unlike the majority of insurgents now, he is an ethnic Tajik and not a Pashtun. However, his tactics seem to bear some similarities to those of the main rebel groups. According to residents, he has established his own justice system. Along with amputating the limbs of thieves, he also reportedly blackens the faces of captured criminals and parades them on donkeys through villages.
Meanwhile, people who work for the government are often kidnapped or killed in their houses and rockets are regularly fired towards Herat airport. Mr Wasir was clearly scared about discussing Mr Yahya even in the relative safety of the provincial capital. "The people who work in the government are afraid and the people who talk are also afraid. But if the government gives him a job again he will never fight against them. He is a good man," he said.
Locals put the number of men under Mr Yahya's command at about 500. Armed predominantly with Kalashnikovs, they often move around in Toyota pickup trucks. A man who gave his name only as Ismatullah said: "When the government removed him from his position he got upset and went to the mountains. Then lots of people from his village and his friends joined him. Others came from different villages and provinces and they also joined him."
Many claim he is acting independently, but some believe he does now have direct ties with the Taliban. Whatever the truth, it is obvious he inspires both fear and respect among the population. "There have even been cases where criminals have shot themselves because they know Ghulam Yahya is coming to arrest them," Ismatullah said. "It has never happened that someone has gone to him and asked for money. But he knows who is rich and who is poor and he will collect money - whether it's [$20] or [$200] - and he will help the people who need it."
Another local rebel commander and former government official goes by the name of Malim Majid. He was the head of Herat airport before the Taliban came to power and, with between 50 and 100 of his own fighters, is now an ally of Mr Yahya, though the two militias do occasionally clash. Ghulam Rahman Frotan made the journey north from Siwoshan to meet The National. His son is an interpreter for US forces elsewhere in the province - a fact that is not widely shared among his neighbours.
"Some of his friends know he is working for the Americans, but the other people don't. If they did they would kill him," he said. "The Americans have not been there. They can't go because the people don't want them. If they did go, the people would fight them." Col Delawar Shah Delawar, the deputy police commander of Herat province, dismissed the significance of Mr Yahya's following, saying he had only 30 or 50 men in his ranks.
He said "all the people who do suicide attacks" come from Siwoshan, and he insisted the rebels do have connections with the Taliban. "We went there and talked to the elders and sent them to Ghulam Yahya to ask him to join the government and give his weapons over. If he does not accept that, then we will remove him and kill him," he said. "I don't think he will accept because he is a criminal and the people working for him are all criminals."