The Position of General Abdul Rashid Dostum in Afghanistan’s Power Equations

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Amanollah Shafaei
General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the famous Uzbek warlord, has played a very important role in political developments of Afghanistan during the past four decades. His radical fans in Afghanistan call him the “king maker.” This title is an innuendo to the role that Dostum has played in toppling regimes and brining governments to power during recent decades. When the government was controlled by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1977-92), General Dostum rapidly grew through the ranks of Afghanistan’s defense ministry and, as a powerful commander of the army, played an important role first in bringing to power and then toppling the party’s government. The government of Mohammad Najibullah, the last Marxist president of Afghanistan, was toppled in 1992 and after General Dostum stopped its support for his government. After the fall of the communist government and without support of General Dostum, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud had no chance to form a government in the face of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s takeoff to take the power reins in his hands. Those who follow developments of Afghanistan in the 1990s believe that the strategic mistake made by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud was pushing General Dostum away from the Mujahideen government after which, he got close to Hekmatyar. The result was weakening of the Islamic government of Afghan Mujahideen in the face of the onslaught by the Taliban.

After the fall of the Taliban in the 2000s and establishment of a new political system in Afghanistan, General Dostum once more played a key role in stabilizing the new government. As put by Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (2002-05), the system of the Islamic Republic became established in Afghanistan only when they succeeded to convince General Dostum to support the new government in its early years. During the presidential election in 2014, the general played his king maker role once again. He joined the “continuity and change” election campaign, took charge as the first vice president, and garnered millions of votes from Turks in Afghanistan, thus playing an important role in bringing Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to power as president. Of course, the second stage of those elections were marred with tension and finally it was through intervention of then US secretary of state, John Kerry, that the two sides’ leaders conceded to form the national unity government. In this government, state positions were divided among rival factions like company stocks. As a result, the position of General Dostum was largely ignored in power equations between Ghani, as president, and Abdullah, as the chief executive. Occasional presence of Dostum as the first vice president at the presidential palace and the time he passed in Uzbek-dominated provinces of north Afghanistan, proved that he was not personally willing to get involved in power exchanges and preferred the company of north Afghanistan’s Uzbeks over those of people like Ghani and Abdullah.

During 2016, Dostum stayed away from Kabul and his stay in provinces of Jowzjan and Faryab took long under the pretext of suppressing the Taliban and Daesh. This development raised many doubts about his true intentions in Kabul. Dostum’s resistance against a call from president to return to Kabul finally led to legal action against him, in which he was accused of sexual harassment of one of his ethnic rivals called Ahmad Ishchi. Follow-up of this case and involvement of human rights organization, made conditions so hard for Dostum that he was finally forced to leave Afghanistan and go into self-exile in Turkey. After staying in Turkey for a few months, Dostum’s effort to return to Afghanistan was once thwarted by the government in Kabul. After that, one of his powerful commanders was arrested by the Afghan army in north Afghanistan. His arrest was followed with widespread protests and unrest against the central government in Kabul by Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in the Uzbek-dominated provinces of Faryab, Badghis, Takhar, Balkh and Jowzjan, which last for three weeks. Protesters asked for the release of Nizamuddin Qaisari and return of General Dostum. At the same time, secessionist slogans were chanted in the midst of civil protests and a flag was seen carrying the name of “Southern Turkestan.”

Of course, similar demands have been put forth during recent years by Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups under the independent flags of “Khorasan” and “Hazaristan” and against the country’s Pashtun leaders. the support offered by prominent leaders of Tajik and Pashtun communities, especially Atta Muhammad Nur and Muhammad Mohaqiq, for protests launched by Uzbeks in addition to the increasing risk of the fall of the national unity government and intensification of secessionist efforts, finally convinced the leaders of the national unity government to give in to the main demand of protesters to prevent further escalation of the situation. Their main demand was immediate reinstatement of General Dostum as the first vice president. Therefore, Dostum returned to Afghanistan on July 22, 2018, and was given a hero’s welcome attended by many figures who are known to be Ashraf Ghani’s opposition. He then ordered Uzbeks to stop demonstrations as well as blocking of customs offices and roads. It must be noted that the return of Dostum to Kabul and his restoration as the first vice president does not mean that the political situation inside the national unity government is back to normal. Only a few days after his return, the general took part in a gathering held to launch the “great national alliance of Afghanistan,” which is run by the president’s opposition. His presence at that gathering showed that a powerful opposition has taken shape within the national unity government.

Of course, aging and side effects of disease have somehow reduced the general’s standing in Afghanistan’s power equations, but there is no doubt that he still weighs on the Afghan politics as a charismatic leader of Afghanistan’s Turks. Without a doubt, no government in Afghanistan can establish its control over northern Afghan provinces without getting the support of General Dostum. The experience of the past 17 years has shown that regardless of whether General Dostum has or has not an official post in the government, and whether he is or is not present in Afghanistan he plays an effective role in controlling rebellion of Turkish people of the country, especially Uzbeks, against the central government. Of course, the general is not as enthusiastic as he was in the past to take part in the political give and take, but his political heirs inside the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, especially his son, Batur Dostum, will try to keep alive his name and fame as Afghanistan’s king maker in the future. Although he is currently the first vice president, his health condition and state of isolation show that he is going downhill. But there is no doubt that the name of the hero of Afghanistan’s Turkish community will remain credible in the country’s politics for a long time to come even after he dies.

*Photo Credit: limacharlienews

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.


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