Kabul: As heavy snow fell on the muddy arena in northern Afghanistan where a traditional game of buzkashi — two teams of horsemen fighting for a dead goat — was underway on Friday, a scuffle broke out near the stands.
It was not just another group of hotheaded fans going at it.
The man who had thrown the punch is the vice-president of Afghanistan, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
And he did not stop there: To drive the humiliation home, he put his foot on the chest of his downed victim, a political rival named Ahmad Ishchi, who was then beaten by the general’s bodyguards, thrown into the back of an armoured vehicle and taken away, said several of Ishchi’s relatives, many of them speaking on the condition of anonymity out of a fear of retaliation.
“Dostum came there and he walked around the stadium, then he called Ahmad Ishchi over to him,” said Gulab Khan, a relative of Ishchi who was among about 5,000 spectators at the game.
“After talking with him for a couple of minutes, he punched him and his bodyguards started beating him with AK-47s. They beat Ahmad very badly and in a barbaric way.”
The account of Dostum’s actions, while not unexpected for a former warlord with a history of accusations of human rights violations and abuse (including physical acts of retaliation against allies and rivals), underscores the fears about someone a heartbeat from the presidency.
With President Ashraf Ghani travelling on an official visit to Central Asia, Dostum is technically the acting president.
For more than two days, he has held a political rival hostage in one of his properties, with members of Ishchi’s family increasingly concerned about his health.
On Sunday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the vice-president’s pink palace in the northern city of Shibarghan, pleading with him to free Ishchi. The protesters remained all day, but Dostum did not meet with them.
His guards simply told the protesters the general was busy or resting.
Spokesmen and advisers to Dostum did not respond to requests for comment, despite promises from several of them.
Aides who had accompanied the general to the game, and who were shown at his side in official pictures, flatly denied they had been there.
Lutfullah Azizi, the governor of Jowzjan province, which includes Shibarghan, said on Sunday that he was away from his office on a visit to Kabul, the capital, but was trying to calm the situation.
“I organised the tribal elders and sent them to talk with Gen. Dostum to release Ahmad,” Azizi said.
“They are currently meeting Gen. Dostum, and we are emphasising Ahmad’s release tonight as he is sick.”
While the two men have a long history of not getting along, a senior Afghan official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said Ishchi had shown some sign of disrespect at a vulnerable time for the general.
Dostum has increasingly felt marginalised and humiliated by Ghani in Kabul.
He has spent more time away from his office, often seen in uniform in the battlefields of his northern stronghold, than behind his desk.
Ishchi has been involved in politics in the north for decades, and he helped Dostum found the Junbish party, which he leads now. A former labour leader during the communist regime, he rose to serve in senior provincial government positions. One of his sons was a district governor in Jowzjan, and another is a member of the provincial council there. A third son has become rich in recent years through businesses he has in Turkey.
The senior Afghan official said that although Ishchi had little power compared with Dostum’s sway, the general considered the Ishchi family a threat to his own dynasty as he groomed his children to inherit his party and influence.
The confrontation happened soon after Dostum returned to the country from an absence that followed another outburst aimed at Ghani, in which he threatened to cause trouble if he was not taken seriously. The outburst was triggered by anger at the lack of help from the central government when the general’s convoy was ambushed by the Taliban during a military operation in Faryab province, killing many of the men who had been at his side for years.
At Friday’s game, Dostum arrived in a convoy of black armoured vehicles. Before the goat was slaughtered to start the action, a video from the event showed, local musicians sang a tribute to the recent martyrs as the general wept. His trembling lips pushing out deep breaths of pain, and with snow gathering on his shoulders, he wiped his tears with a white tissue.
Then, he took it out on Ishchi.