Dostum – back to the 1990s?
By Tim Foxley
December 11, 2008: Seven years ago, a convoy of container trucks rumbled across northern Afghanistan loaded with a human cargo of suspected Taliban and al Qaida members who’d surrendered to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan warlord and a key U.S. ally in ousting the Taliban regime.
When the trucks arrived at a prison in the town of Sheberghan, near Dostum’s headquarters, they were filled with corpses. Most of the prisoners had suffocated, and others had been killed by bullets that Dostum’s militiamen had fired into the metal containers.
Dostum’s men hauled the bodies into the nearby desert and buried them in mass graves, according to Afghan human rights officials. By some estimates, 2,000 men were buried there.
This from Ahmed Rashid:
Rashid: “The Taliban”, 2001: 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 an hour earlier Dostum had punished a soldier for stealing. The man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank , which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body into mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched.
I would describe Abdul Rashid Dostum as an ethnic-Uzbek Afghan ex- (and probably current- and future-) warlord with a suspect record in the field of human rights and war crimes. He is part hated and part revered. He would certainly have you believe that he is the only true representative of the ethnic Uzbek community in Afghanistan. He has changed sides many times and is an opportunist and a survivor. From his perspective, this is in part thanks to a safe haven called Turkey which has, over the decades, proved routinely willing to host him when things get too difficult for him in Afghanistan.
He has surfaced in recent news stories in a couple of ways:
The region has been the center of national attention since the Afghan president’s National Security Office asked the attorney general earlier this week to investigate allegations that Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful warlord based in northern Afghanistan, had pressured Chinese engineers who were starting preparatory work on the Amu Darya oil field, “demanding illegal financial benefits.” The claim was categorically denied by General Dostum and his political bloc, the National Front.
In a statement, General Dostum’s party said that he had advised the Chinese “that it would it would be better not to bring labor and security personnel from outside the province and they should be hired locally.”
The Chinese won a bid to explore the oil field late last year.
The security contract for the area is a lucrative prize, and it appears there is considerable competition for it, according to locals. There have been instances in Afghanistan of security firms that, when they were seeking contracts, arranged bombings or ambushes in order to heighten the sense that their services were needed.
Of course there are groups within the Afghan government that do not operate purely in the interests of the Afghan state. And there are certainly Chinese investment groups that are not acting purely in the interests of the Afghan state. But for Dostum to be seeking to gain influence and control in his “turf” looks highly likely. It is equally plausible that Dostum believes and acts upon the notion that the interests of the Uzbeks in Afghanistan are exactly aligned with his own.
He has also made comments on another issue:
Ahmad Zia Masoud, the former first vice-President and leader of Afghanistan National Front, said that in dealing with opposition, Afghan government decided to use the cheap tactics and instruments. Condemning the attack [on Haji Mohammad Mohaqqeq] in the strongest possible terms, General Abdur Rashid Dostum, warned that the repetition of such attacks will not be tolerated in the future.
None of this is particularly earth shattering in itself, but my main point is that former warlords are still around by knowing how to play the system – either political, military or media. They thrive on uncertainty and fear. In this time of uncertainty, transition and focus on military/insurgent battles we should remember that, although these players rarely represent a benign influence, I think we can probably expect them to start testing, probing and looking for ways to reassert themselves in their old ways as the international community looks to be pulling out. There may be power vacuums that need filling…
Sometimes the international community can make things worse. Joshua Foust’s consistently articulate Registan website has found and posted up a letter from Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta. In essence, Rohrabacher argues that Dostum is merely trying to get a fair deal for the oppressed Uzbeks, who are suffering at the hands of a communist Chinese investment group and a corrupt Afghan central government. The Congressman essentially calls for the US to drop Karzai’s central government and return to an alliance with what would be at great risk of becoming a collection of Afghan ethnic warlords. Who knows – maybe Dostum has turned over a new leaf and is embracing political pluralism and the ballot box, but what do you really think “decentralisation” and “federalism” mean to a warlord…?