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In Herat, immense beauty, contradiction and peril

Afghans leave the shrine of a renowned poet and scholar, Khowja Abdullah Ansari, in the western city of Herat. (Sayed Salahuddin/Reuters)

HERAT, Afghanistan — The first thing you see when you land in Herat are the venerable old pines that line the road into town from the airport. After Kabul's dun-colored expanses, the dark green trees soothe the eye and the mind. For a little while, you can picture yourself somewhere else, untouched by war and tragedy.

The city is perched on the border with Iran and Turkmenistan, and the Persian influence is felt quite keenly. It is a city of grace and learning, where, it was once said, "you could not stick out your leg without kicking a poet."

Herat is famous for three things: the romantic minarets built by Queen Gowhar in the 15th century, the beautifully restored Blue Mosque, and Ismail Khan, whose high-handed reign as governor of the province earned him the title "Emir."

All of these attractions have their own special place in Herat's turbulent history and troubled present.

Take the minarets: The five that remain of the original 17 or so lean precariously over a busy roadway. Just a few years ago you could drive right up to them, and the rumble from cars and trucks threatened to shake them into dust. Now they are being propped up with guy wires and blocked off from the worst of the traffic. Striking against the skyline, they serve as an eloquent reminder of the results of foreign intervention: The British knocked down six of the minarets in the late 19th century, preparing for a Russian attack that failed to materialize.

The international presence now is in the form of Italian troops, who are occasionally seen on patrol in the town. Their major influence lies in the availability of decent Italian wine, smuggled off the base by the Afghan employees and sold, under the counter, in town. My colleagues and I spent a few evenings imbibing, although we had to open the bottle with a coat hanger. Corkscrews are hard to come by in a country where alcohol is illegal.

Ismail Khan made an appearance in Herat this week. The white-bearded strongman is still enormously popular on his home turf. Many people remember fondly the days when the governor defied the central government, refusing to send Kabul the millions in tax revenues he collected weekly from the lines of trucks streaming in from Iran and Turkmenistan. He put much of it into the city's infrastructure, and Herat has always been a cut above the rest of the country in goods and services.

Four years ago President Hamed Karzai sought to deprive Ismail Khan of his power base by bringing him to Kabul, where he is still minister of power and energy. The ultra-conservative former mujaheddin commander, whose views on women would not be far out of line with the Taliban's, made one much-publicized stop in his few days in Herat: He dropped by the Department of Women's Affairs, where his daughter is in charge.

To an outsider, Herat seems much more relaxed than the capital, but residents say that the situation is getting worse by the day. Suicide bombings are becoming more common, as are kidnappings. Journalists are under severe pressure from Iran, which is trying to extend its influence into Afghanistan. One woman reporter who worked for years under threat from the Taliban in Kandahar said that the situation in Herat is no better. "Every time I do a story about Iranian influence I get phone calls warning me to stop," she told me.

In a day or so I'll be back in Kabul, which, thanks to Ismail Khan, now has electricity. If only he could get us some trees...