Thursday 4 December 2008

Gone at last?

So is it farewell, General Abdurrashid Dostum? The notorious Uzbek warlord flew out of Afghanistan onTuesday in a Turkish government jet, possibly to end his days in exile in Ankara - although a Turkish government official has merely confirmed that he is in the country for the Eid Ghorban festival. Removed from his largely symbolic job as military chief of staff to the President in February after kidnapping and beating up a former ally, it is being said that President Karzai agreed to drop all charges if Dostum left the country permanently.
Details of theoriginal incident are unclear, but on 2 February 2008, Dostum's fighters reportedly kidnapped Akbar Bai, a former ally who had become his rival. During the attack Bai, his son, and a bodyguard were allegedly beaten (according to former US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Dostum personally assaulted Bai with a beer bottle, almost killing him), and another bodyguard shot. The following day Dostum's house was surrounded by police. Bai and the three others were freed and hospitalized. According to the authorities, the stand-off ended with Dostum's agreement to cooperate with the authorities in an investigation of the incident.
A few weeks later he was suspended from his post. President Karzai was initially reluctant to take any action, but with growing protests he was forced to act. The investigation concluded in the autumn and then there appears to have been a certain amount of horse-trading, which has not reflected well on the President. Akbar Bai agreed to drop all charges and Dostum was restored to his old job on 30 October, if only to ensure he didn't lose too much face. However it may now be that he has agreed to leave Afghanistan forever.
Dostum's long and bloody political career began in the 1970s. He first rose to prominence as a Communist Party union boss and following the Soviet intervention backed the pro-Moscow government in its battle against the Western-backed mujahideen. He soon rose to become commander of the 53rd Infantry Division and then Unit 374 in Jowzjan, which was loyal to President Najibullah.
After the Russians left Afghanistan Dostum joined forces with the Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in April 1992 to fight against the islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His forces later captured Kabul where they were accused of rape and looting. Then in 1994 he swapped sides again, this time teaming up with Hekmatyar (another notorious warlord) to fight Massoud and the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. Once more charges of rape and looting were laid against his militiamen.
When the Taliban swept to power in 1996 Dostum teamed up with Rabbani and even protected Massoud's troops as they withdrew from Kabul in the face of the Taliban onslaught.
Based in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Dostum established a kind of mini-state where he earned a reputation for cruelty, sometimes executing people by having them driven over by tanks. However, in 1998 he fell out with his second-in-command, General Abdul Malik - who defected to the Taliban - and was forced to flee to Turkey where he lived in exile until April 2001 when he once again joined forces with the Northern Alliance of Massoud and the Herat-based Ismail Khan.
After the Taliban were driven from power it emerged that Dostum's troops had been responsible for a massacre of several thousand Taliban who had been captured in the northern city of Kunduz. The men were loaded into containers where many of them died after Dostum's men opened fire. Others were suffocated. The massacre remains one of the most shameful events in modern Afghan history.
Dostum's men were also involved in the battle at Qala-e-Jangi, an old fortress where around 300 mostly foreign fighters (Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis) were held at the end of November 2001. The fighters staged an uprising in which CIA agent Mike Spann was killed. It ended after almost a week with air strikes that killed all but 86 of the foreign fighters, most of whom were later transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Under the Karzai government Dostum was initially deputy defence minister, but he continued to court controversy and became involved in fighting against the Tajik commander Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor over control of Mazar-e-Sharif. Although that conflict later subsided, he remained a thorn in the side of Karzai, who was unable to touch him because of his support amongst the Uzbeks.
The attack on Akbar Bai seems to have been the final straw and although Karzai was reluctant to move against him, in the end he seems to have beeb persuaded to leave the country, according to Watan newspaper. In the northern provinces where he had wide support from the Uzbek population, Dostum was revered and could count on a loyal following. He allowed religious freedom (he is an atheist) and also allowed women to work outside the home.
Whilst Dostum may have protected the interests of his kinsmen in the northern provinces, he was never able to reconcile himself to the idea of a democratic Afghanistan. If he has left is a victory of sorts for progressive forces in the country, although it has shown President Karzai in a poor light for his indecisiveness. We can only hope that a few more of the Soviet-era warlords will follow his example and quit the country for good.

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