The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid tells the story of going to interview General Dostum in his Qalai Janghi fortress just north of the Uzbek stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. Rashid noticed smears of blood and flesh in one corner of the courtyard and wondered to the guards if a goat had recently been slaughtered. Guards informed him that an hour earlier Dostum had ordered a soldier accused of stealing to be tied to the tracks of a tank that then drove around until he was reduced to mincemeat.
Dostum is the ultimate survivor; he puts even Yasser Arafat to shame. He has been forced to flee Afghanistan twice but has each time staged impressive comebacks. A Soviet-era military commander turned warlord, he has now emerged as a US-backed Warrior-Against-Terrorism. Today he is working hard to transform himself into a civilian politician, of sorts.
Dostum is the son of poor Uzbek peasants and worked in the oilfields near his home province of Jozjan. In 1980 he went for training in the USSR and returned to a job in the Ministry of State Security in the pro-Soviet government. By 1992 he had 20,000 troops and a vast armoury, including his own airforce of MIG-21 planes, based in northern Afghanistan. But Dostum saw the writing on the wall and went over to the mujahedin resistance, sealing the fate of Moscow-backed President Najibullah in Kabul. The common nickname for his men in those days among Afghans was Galamjam or 'carpet thieves'.
He has fought for and against the Russians, for and against the mujahedin resistance and for and against the Taliban. Dostum, known to his soldiers as 'The Wrestler', controls a great swath of territory - some six (Uzbek-dominated) provinces between the Hindu Kush mountains and the border with Uzbekistan. Even by the rather loose standards of Afghan politics, Rashid Dostum has displayed a combination of tactical brutality and pragmatic treachery that is truly remarkable. He is known for his good sense of imagery and quickly seized the post-11-September opportunity - mounted, appropriately enough, on a white horse - to lead the anti-Taliban forces.
Following the first successes of the 'Northern Alliance' in capturing Mazar-i-Sharif he presided over the slaughter of Taliban prisoners, embarrassing his new US sponsors. The incident prompted some to recall the days following the Soviet collapse in 1994 when Dostum led an assault to try to capture Kabul from rival mujahedin. By the time the dust cleared, some 4,000 civilians had been killed, 21,000 wounded and 200,000 made homeless as large sections of the capital were reduced to rubble. Little wonder that Afghans are by no means sure who is and is not a 'terrorist'...
Dostum is certainly not, however, an Islamic fundamentalist. Women were banned from any work or education in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan but when he controlled Mazar-i-Sharif, before its fall to the Taliban, some 1,800 women attended university. Dostum has a reputation as not only a good military strategist but also a competent administrator - after all, who is likely to stand in his way?
It is unlikely that Dostum will submit to central government of any kind, no matter what its political complexion. His bottom line seems to be to maintain absolute control of his northern fiefdom. This is usually best accomplished by championing the cause of minority tribal rights against domination by the majority Pashtuns. He is currently resisting the deployment of Turkish UN peacekeepers in Mazar and the surrounding area, despite widespread banditry aimed at the aid effort in the region.
But to survive these days Dostum is cutting his jib to fit with the new talk of civil governance and human rights. His new clothes are similar to those being donned by other Afghan warlords - Ismail Khan in Herat, Gul Agha Shirzai in Kandahar and Hajji Abdul-Qadir in Jalalabad - in order to assert traditional fiefdom-based power and put paid to fancy notions of democracy. The warlords were much in evidence, twisting arms and monopolizing microphones, at the Loya Jirga held in Kabul this spring to pave the way for a new political dispensation. Despite widespread anti-warlord sentiment in the country they managed to manipulate local elections to the Loya Jirga to ensure themselves and their loyal followers prominent seats at the table. The fate of women's affairs minister Sima Samar, pushed out of her job in the Karzai cabinet amid accusations that she was an 'Afghan Salman Rushdie', is ample testimony to the direction things have taken. As one Kabul taxi driver is quoted as saying: 'The same people who destroyed these buildings are sitting in the front row of the Loya Jirga.' And the path to those front-row seats has been cleared by the US military which has turned a blind eye to the human-rights abuses of its warlord allies. The main task is, after all, to smoke out those al-Qaeda terrorists.
If the abuses by Dostum and the other warlords are systematically ignored, Afghans may begin to wonder why they absorbed all that collateral damage from errant B-52 bombs. Much of the promised aid from the West is stuck in the pipeline - the World Food Programme has received only 57 per cent of the food it requested from foreign donors. In the meantime Dostum, who is characterized by his air of 'jovial menace', looks to have better survival odds than the fledgling Afghan aspirations for peace and democracy.
If infamous or not-so-famous big shots are beating up
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