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Abdul Rashid Dostum: Veteran General Lacks Broad Support

The controversial commander Abdul Rashid Dostum has little chance of winning votes outside his own constituency.
By Hafizullah Gardish

The decision of General Abdul Rashid Dostum - the tough commander who holds sway over much of northern Afghanistan - to stand in the presidential ballot appears to have taken both government and political analysts by surprise, all the more so because it could be argued that the general's military background is in direct breach of Afghanistan's election law.


One of the best known figures of Afghanistan's 20 years of war, Dostum, 50, began fighting alongside the Communists, then switched side to align himself with the mujahedin and most recently helped the Americans in 2001. This turbulent career has earned him a reputation for opportunism that his enemies regard as treachery.


Announcing his candidature, Dostum pledged, "If I am elected president, I will promote a government based on Islam."


In his election programme, he promised to support disarmament of Afghanistan's militias, to campaign against drugs production, and promote government based on human rights and democracy.


But critics say Dostum has patently failed to deliver on many of the issues that he has now made part of his political platform.


Dostum was born to a poor family from Jowzjan province's substantial Uzbek population, and began his working life in the gas industry after completing an elementary education.


In the Eighties, he was part of the Soviet-backed communist regime's military, leading an irregular militia recruited from local Uzbeks who gained a reputation for ferocity in fighting against the mujahedin rebels. Their commander was rewarded by rapid promotion to the rank of general.


But by 1992, the storm clouds had gathered over the weakening government of President Najibullah. Sensing the change, Dostum helped seal his former masters' fate by changing sides to back a coalition of mujahedin factions which captured Kabul and overthrew the communists. As Dostum's spokesman Mohammad Homayun Khairi puts it, "When the mujahedin entered Kabul, they were riding on Dostum's tanks."


For the next four years, the various mujahedin groups, joined by Dostum's feared "Uzbek militia", were to destroy large parts of the capital - killing tens of thousands - in a senseless and bloody war to control territory and win cabinet posts.


The internecine conflict was brought to a halt when a new force, the Taleban, captured Kabul. Like other commanders, Dostum withdrew to his own patch - in his case, the provinces of north-central Afghanistan.


He was forced to flee to neighbouring Uzbekistan in 1997, after a bloody episode in which one of his deputies, General Abdul Malik, whose brother had been killed allegedly by Dostum, defected to the Taleban and helped them overrun the northern provinces.


But five days later, with the assistance of another faction, Malik turned on his new allies and the Taleban were slaughtered. Dostum made an attempt to return and regained control for a year, before he was again defeated in battle and fled to Turkey.


In 2001, following the September 11 attacks on the United States, Dostum, as a key Northern Alliance commander, advanced from Central Asia into Samangan and helped the United States topple the Taliban regime.


As well his militia following, Dostum developed a political vehicle through the Nineties, the National Islamic Movement or Junbesh-e-Milli-ye-Islami, which has increasingly sought to reshape itself as a political party as well as one of the traditional militarised factions.


The general was awarded the post of deputy defence minister, but on the ground his men of the Eighth Army Corps engaged in sporadic turf warfare with another local militia led by Mohammad Atta, for which each side blamed the other. The local conflict was complicated by the fact that Atta was part of the Jamiat-e-Islami faction and an ally of Dostum's ministerial superior, defence chief Mohammad Qasim Fahim.


Although Karzai gave him the additional post of special advisor, and Dostum himself spoke about the need to remove militias and move towards democratic government, the general's shift of image from archetypal warlord to civilian politician has been marred by the continued lack of security in his home region and questions about his human rights record.


Government officials were particularly irked when troops loyal to Dostum stormed into Maimana, capital of the north-western Faryab region, in April this year, unceremoniously ousting a Kabul-approved provincial governor with whom the general had apparently fallen out. "This is an unconstitutional act of interference," said Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali.


Dostum's spokesman later said the incident was a result of a campaign to discredit the general.


Political analyst Habibullah Rafi suggests Dostum should be ruled out from standing for election by a law adopted earlier this year specifically barring any candidate who controls an armed militia.


Candidates should not "have unofficial military organisations, or be part of them", article 16 of the election law says.


But when IWPR spoke to Sayed Mohammed Azam, spokesman for the election management body, he refused to talk about Dostum's candidacy and the ban on militia leaders.


"I can't talk about Dostum," he said, noting that the general was only one of many candidates and that the Joint Election Management Body, JEMB, was reviewing all of the documentation relating to their applications to stand.


The general has publicly agreed to cede control of his forces and put them through the Demobilisation, Demilitarisation and Reintegration programme, DDR, which the UN has run for the government. But the general's compliance with DDR has been criticised.


"Even though Dostum claims that he has not violated this programme directly, he doesn't want to surrender his heavy weapons which are included in the main programme," said Milos Krsmanovic, the official in charge of DDR in the north.


He added that although Dostum no longer technically counts as a military commander, because he resigned as deputy defence minister to run for the presidency, he still enjoys full support of the soldiers of Eighth Corps, based in Mazar-e-Sharif.


Another accusation brought by some people in the north is that Dostum, as de facto political chief of several provinces, of presiding over extortion and other human rights abuses.


Juma Khan, 18, a resident of Daulat Abad district in the Balkh province, says, "Nazar Mohammad, one of Dostum's commanders, charges us six to 10 dollars as 'life tax'." The tax, known as "kala poli", is protection money that has to be paid by villages whose residents are not willing to serve in the militias of local commanders, so that they can live there.


The head of the human rights joint commission in the north, Sayed Ikramuddin Haisaryan, underlined the connection between militias and human rights abuses.


"A lot of civil rights violators in the north of Afghanistan are gunmen who are linked with various parties," he said. Haisaryan said there were several parties involved, among them Junbish led by Dostum, but also Hizb-e-Wahdat, whose leaders include Hamed Karzai's running-mate in the presidential election, Karim Khalili.


Another question swirling around Dostum is allegations that he has profited from production and trafficking of opium in northern Afghanistan.


The region Dostum controls includes areas where opium is grown. "These four provinces - Balkh, Faryab, Jowzjan and Samangan - are on the list of major areas for poppy production," said General Majid Azimi, head of the national intelligence service's branch in Mazar-e-Sharif.


A government official, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR that narcotics from the north are frequently smuggled from producing areas in the north via Jowzjan province to Ghor, and on to Kandahar and to Helmand province for processing into heroin. Then it is taken by road back through the northern regions and to Central Asia.


As the top Uzbek political and military figure, Dostum is seen by supporters and enemies alike as representing his community's interests, and he has even been accused of separatist ambitions for provinces with a strong Uzbek ethnic presence.


He has tried - like the other three leading contenders in the presidential race - to broaden his appeal by selecting running-mates from other communities. In his case, his vice-presidents of choice are Shafiqa Habibi, a Pashtun female journalist, and Wazir Mohammad.


On the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, Nazar Mohammad says "Among all the candidates who have come forward up to now, I consider Dostum the most effective person for the future of Afghanistan."


He rejects charges that Dostum has behaved treacherously in the past, insisting that whatever he promised, he delivered on - and did not lie to people.


Mohammad Ibrahim, from the Dawlatabad district north of Mazar-e-Sharif, is in no doubt about who he will choose, saying, "I am Uzbek, so I will give my vote to an Uzbek."


And Faiz Mohammed said: "I will never vote for anyone but Dostum…Dostum is our leader. He always helps us; he listens to people before doing anything".


But in Kabul, there's little support for him. "Who is Dostum?" asked Bilqis, a 45-year-old woman. "He is a looter, and he cares only about the Uzbeks and nothing else. I don't accept him."


Political analyst Rafi sees Dostum's candidacy as particularly divisive because of his past, "During Dr Najibullah's regime [1986-92] led a tribal militia and damaged national unity."


Rafi warned that Dostum now wants a federal state, which would ultimately take Afghanistan towards disintegration.


In recent years, Dostum and his supporters have floated the idea of creating a federative structure to ensure that minority and regional interests are taken care of.


They have been accused of using the idea to promote secession by stealth. Such accusations date largely from the first half of the nineties, when the general was allied with Uzbekistan and to an extent Russia, and was viewed as running a de facto buffer statelet on their behalf, in return for covert supplies of military equipment. But neither Dostum nor his Junbesh allies have suggested that they would want more than federal status or that they do not believe in the Afghan state.


Opponents of Dostum say a man whose education ended at primary school is not qualified to run for president.


"My God! - Dostum isn't educated; if he becomes president he will sign documents without reading them," said Mohammad Afzal, 30, who like many who make this criticism, lives in Kabul where education provision is better than elsewhere.


"He joined the army with the help of the Communists and the regime's intelligence services," said a Kabul analyst, who asked not to be named. "Dostum had an intellectual talent for homicide and for this reason, after joining the military, he was promoted to the position of general."


But Dostum's spokesman Khairi brushed aside such allegations, saying Dostum's military promotions were just rewards for his abilities.


Dostum's colourful career leaves him a feared as well as respected figure who carries undoubted political - and military - clout.


His candidature, together with those of two other influential figures, Yunus Qanuni and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, increases the number of popular credible candidates standing against President Karzai, raising the likelihood of a second round - something that was not previously anticipated, and that will bring additional problems.


Hafizullah Gardish is an IWPR editor in Kabul. IWPR staff reporters Jawad Sharifzade, Yaqub Ibrahimi from Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul freelancer Dauod Roshan also contributed to this report.