The South Asia Channel

Dostum: Afghanistan's exiled warlord

By Brian Glyn Williams

One of the biggest questions in Kabul today is whether exiled Afghan-Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum will return from Turkey to Afghanistan. Dostum, who has served as chief of staff of the Afghan Army and deputy defense minister, traveled to Turkey in December 2008 to visit his family and has not been permitted to return by President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has seized upon an incident wherein Dostum beat a rival as a pretext for keeping this powerful warlord in exile. But the underlying reasons for Dostum's exile stem from the fact that he is a popular leader among his own people, the Turko-Mongol Uzbeks, and defends their interests vis-à-vis the Pashtun-Tajik-dominated Karzai government.

Regardless of the reasons for his exile, Dostum's chances of returning to his homeland were hurt by the recent publication of a New York Times article. The July 10 article by James Risen, "U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.'s Died," revived charges against Dostum of killing hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war back in November 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom. These unsubstantiated charges referring to the transfer of captured Taliban prisoners were first made in a 2002 Newsweek article, "The Death Convoy of Afghanistan," but were largely forgotten because no investigation into the killings was ever carried out by any Afghan or international organization. Risen's article has, however, refocused the light on them, and President Obama has reacted to the article by announcing he will launch an investigation of the charges.

Although it might seem natural for a liberal-leaning newspaper like the New York Times to focus on exposing the war crimes of an Afghan warlord, there is a twist to this story that few non-Afghans are aware of. Namely, that Dostum has a reputation as the most liberal warlord in Afghanistan and has long stood as a defender for secularism and the empowerment of women. In addition, he has consistently fought against the Taliban who are now encroaching into the northern territories that he and his followers have kept free of insurgents. A history of Dostum's activities paints a picture of a warlord whose goals are aligned with those of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and one that defies stereotypes of Afghan warlords.

Dostum the Kingmaker

Unlike other warlords in Afghanistan, Dostum was not a fundamentalist mujahideen. On the contrary, he first rose to power in the early 1980s as an antimujahideen counterinsurgent. Dostum proved to be incredibly efficient as a leader and soon cleared the mujahideen from his home province of Jowzjan. Dostum's "Jowzjani militia" was subsequently upgraded to division status by the Afghan communist government and came to include 40,000 fighters. By all accounts they fought loyally, especially against the fanatical mujahideen faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is currently aligned with the Taliban.

But as the jihad ended following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Pashtun-dominated communist government sought to demobilize the Uzbeks who were seen as ghulams ("Turkic slave warriors"). Forewarned of the government's plans, Dostum mutinied and seized the northern plains town of Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum's seizure of the holy shrine town in April 1992 deprived the government of the mandate to rule the land and led to the central government's collapse. The various mujahideen commanders then carved the country up into fiefdoms. For his part, Dostum ran a ministate in the north made up of six provinces based on Mazar-e-Sharif. Far from pillorying Dostum, at the time the New York Times, in a 1996 article that helped its reporter win a Pulitzer Prize, described his fiefdom as follows:

General Dostum is widely popular here in Mazar-i-Sharif, the dusty city of two million people where he makes his headquarters, and not only among ethnic Uzbeks, many of whom take pride in the martial state he has created, with tank barrels and antiaircraft guns bristling from every mud-walled fort and hilltop. For many others, it is the freedoms here, fast disappearing in areas under Taliban control, that make him an icon.

'I think he is a good leader, because people here can live as they want,' said Latifa Hamidi, 18, who is in her first year of medical studies at Balkh University, an institution financed by General Dostum.

Like perhaps half of the population of the city, Ms. Hamidi is a refugee, in her case from Kabul, where her father was killed by a shell five years ago. She has nightmares about what would happen if the Taliban defeated the general and took control here.

'I want knowledge, and I want a useful life,' she said. 'I don't want to be forced to stay at home.'"

But Dostum's secular realm was overwhelmed by the Taliban in 1998, and he was forced to flee to exile in Turkey. He returned in April 2001 to fight a horse-mounted insurgent war against the Taliban from a mountain base in the Hindu Kush. When he heard about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dostum offered to assist the Americans. On Nov. 9, 2001, he once again seized Mazar-e-Sharif, and this led to the collapse of the Taliban house of cards, thus preventing the United States from having to launch a frontal invasion of the Afghan "graveyard of empires" in winter. It was at this time that he captured thousands of Taliban, some of whom were reported to have died. Dostum has repeatedly claimed that between 100 and 120 prisoners died, many from wounds. But until an investigation is carried out, the unsubstantiated claims that hundreds or perhaps "thousands" of Taliban prisoners died will continue to bedevil Afghanistan's most secular warlord.

Brian Glyn Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

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