“He wielded power ruthlessly. The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that a man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body to mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched. The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging — a hangover from their origins as a part of Genghis Khan’s hordes and Dostum was an apt leader.” (Ahmad Rashid, “The Taliban”, page 56).
Upon such horrors was General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s mini ethnic Uzbek state in northern Afghanistan built. The infamous warlord, also rumoured to have tied his enemies to the muzzle of a cannon before firing, has been a mainstay of Afghan politics right since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. Even at 60, Dostum is a huge and intimidating figure. More than 6 feet tall, with a bushy moustache and bulging biceps, he is “a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death”.
Dostum was born in 1954 in Khojha Dukoh, northern Afghanistan. As a “4 Star General”, he served as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, the outgoing president Hamid Karzai.
In the late 1970s, he was arrested and jailed by Khalqi nationalists who came to his village pushing for land reforms. In 1979 when the Soviets invaded and toppled the Khalqis, Dostum and other political prisoners were released. The politically astute Dostum joined the invaders and started working alongside them, heading a militia called Jowzjan, originally composed of 600 men.
His was essentially a war against the Mujahideen fighters, who were battling to evict the Red Army from Afghanistan with the help of America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Dostum’s militia expanded to become the so-called “53rd Division of the Afghan Army”, and Dostum bestowed upon himself the rank of a “4 star general”. At its peak he commanded 50,000 well-armed men who were used to crush those fighting to free Afghanistan from the horrific Soviet occupation.
He continued to support the Soviet puppet government in Afghanistan even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, until 1992 when, in true Dostum style, he switched sides and joined the legendary Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, an ethnic Tajik and, like Dostum, a member of a minority group in Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan.
After the fall of Kabul in 1992, Dostum ran the northern Uzbek areas like his private fiefdom, with his capital in Mazar-e-Sharif. When his sworn enemies — the Taliban — reached the gates of Mazar, carrying out their own massacres, he fled into exile in Turkey, only to return in 2001, to help America in its war on the Taliban following the attacks of 9/11, which came as a boon to Dostum.
The warlord — a genuine survivor — was back in business. Under what came to be known as the Dasht-i-Leili massacre, Dostum’s militiamen killed up to 3,000 Taliban prisoners by shooting and/or suffocating them in metal containers while they were being transported to be handed over to US troops in December 2001. Satellite images of the mass graves in the Dasht-i-Leili desert were released by the UN and Physicians for Human Rights. But Dostum was protected from any prosecution for the massacre by his many friends in Washington, especially in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In fact, after the fall of the Taliban, his militia was to a large extent funded by the CIA.
Peter Tomsen, the US special envoy to Afghan resistance fighters during their war against Soviet occupation two decades ago, told the Washington Times in October 2008: “The CIA made some cardinal errors when we went into Afghanistan by passing out millions and millions of dollars to Dostum ... He certainly should be sidelined and if he leaves the country we’ll see greater success in reaching the people.” He said the warlord’s Jowzjan militia had “raped young girls in front of their families and killed thousands upon thousands of people”.
Afghanistan has been cursed by its warlords and militias; they continue to exert influence in all fields. And the opportunism of its politicians doesn’t help either. Ashraf Ghani, seen as the front runner in tomorrow’s presidential elections, had branded Dostum “a known killer” in 2009, when the warlord was backing Karzai’s bid for re-election. Conveniently, however, Dostum became a running mate for Ghani this time around — the first vice-presidential candidate on Ghani’s ticket. This, while still maintaining his powerful private militia. Such is the nature of Afghan politics.
In June last year, Dostum was involved in a spat befitting an Afghan warlord. Apparently, he had called Mohammad Aleem Sayee, the deputy head of his Junbish-i-Milli political party and the governor of the Jowzjan province, and asked Sayee to join his efforts to start a new front against the Taliban in the north — a civil war within a civil war. Reportedly, Sayee refused, saying that that was the job of the Afghan National Army. Incensed, Dostum threatened to come to Jowzjan and kill the governor and his family. Sayee, knowing his boss, prepared his men for any eventuality. As promised, Dostum arrived, accompanied by about 50 bodyguards.
Sayee said that Dostum’s men tried to force their way in and opened fire. But the warlord contended that all he wanted to do was to have a discussion with his deputy, and, without provocation, his men had opened fire on the visitors.
In a press conference that Sayee held later, he declared: “These warlords would like to take Afghanistan back to those old days ... They are dreaming of the time they were running small fiefs around the country. They are threatening ordinary people and trying to intimidate them with the 2014 deadline of foreign forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Like they say, it takes one to know one.