The South Asia Channel
The return of the kingmaker
By Brian Glyn Williams After seven months in exile in Turkey, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the paramount leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Turkmen communities, was given permission by the Karzai government to return to the country yesterday. Thousands of his supporters, including many beating drums and chanting “Long live General Dostum!” mobbed him when he ...
By Brian Glyn Williams
After seven months in exile in Turkey, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the paramount leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Turkmen communities, was given permission by the Karzai government to return to the country yesterday. Thousands of his supporters, including many beating drums and chanting “Long live General Dostum!” mobbed him when he landed in Kabul International Airport on the evening of August 16. Rallies were also held in the north, his traditional bailiwick, where Uzbeks predominate. This was the end of Dostum’s third exile in Turkey (the previous two being caused by the Taliban in 1997 and 1998 respectively) and cements his status as Afghanistan’s most resilient warlord.
Dostum, who was also reappointed by President Karzai to the symbolic post of Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army, a post he was stripped of prior to his exile for beating a political rival in 2008, was officially invited back to Afghanistan Sunday morning. His exile ended with the Afghan government’s announcement that, “General Abdul Rashid Dostum can travel abroad and can return home as an Afghan citizen and on the basis of the constitution. He has total freedom in this regard. There is no legal block for his frequenting and for choosing a place.”
Dostum’s return, which once seemed improbable due to pressure from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to keep him in exile following the publication of a critical article on him in the New York Times, was part of a backroom deal with President Karzai. Karzai, who polls show as having support from roughly 45% of Afghans, needs to win 50% of the vote in the August 20 election to avoid a run off election.
Karzai’s main opponent, the Tajik leader, Abdullah Abdullah, has been predicted to garner 25% of the vote, but this number may increase since Pashtun turnout for the elections in the south is predicted to be lower than in 2004 due to Taliban threats and intimidation. As an ethnic Pashtun, Karzai needs to gain the support of non-Pashtuns from the north to seal his victory over his Tajik opponent, Abdullah. Hence his decision to allow Dostum to return.
Karzai has already received endorsements from other key regional leaders who are often simplistically known as jang salaran (warlords) by their detractors. These have included Ismail Khan, a popular Tajik from the western city of Herat who has been given the profile of Minister of Water and Electricity, Gul Agha Sherzai, a notorious Pashtun mujahideen leader from Kandahar who currently serves as governor of Nangahar Province, Karim Khalili, a Hazara leader who has served as Karzai’s Vice President, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Pasthun who represents members of his group in the north, and Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, a Pashtun governor of Helmand Province who was removed from his post for involvement in opium smuggling. All of these leaders have brought their ethnic or tribal vote with them for Karzai in return for his support for them in the government.
Such deals have given Karzai’s critics ammunition for accusing him of catering to warlords at the expense of democracy. Human rights groups in the West have deplored this ‘umbrella’ approach and the US government has also expressed its concerns.
When it received news of Dostum’s return, the U.S. embassy expressed its dismay stating it had, “made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concerns about the prospective role of Mr. Dostum in today’s Afghanistan, particularly during these historic elections. The issues surrounding him become all the more acute with his return to Afghanistan during this period. Among other concerns, his reputed past actions raise questions of his culpability for massive human rights violations.”
Glib calls for Karzai to cut his ties with leaders like Dostum, however, overlook one key point to understanding Afghanistan: all politics is local. While foreigners may define men like Dostum as warlords, among their own qawm (tribe, ethnic group or regional community) they are seen as respected leaders.
Among the Uzbeks and related Turkmen, for example, Dostum is known as either Baba (Father) or the Pasha (the Commander). He is seen as grass roots representative of their people vis a vis Kabul. Any perceived offense to their local leader by the central government can cost it the support of that community. If Dostum was not allowed to return, he promised that his followers would vote for Abdullah Abdullah. This would cost Karzai roughly ten percent of the Afghan vote based upon Dostum’s success as a candidate in the 2004 presidential elections when he garnered that number.
Dostum has already begun campaigning for Karzai and has ended a split in his Uzbek-dominated Jumbesh Party caused by his departure. His Uzbek and Turkmen followers have promised to vote for Karzai in return for the respect given to the Pasha, Dostum. One of these followers stated, “We love him [Dostum] like our father. He is our elder and anything he says, I’ll accept.”
Another follower claimed, “In Faryab, whoever Dostum votes for, we’ll follow his word. Dostum is our heart, he is our kidneys…whoever Dostum votes for, we’ll vote the same.” During my time living with the Uzbeks and Dostum (2003 and 2005), I found that support for the Pasha ran deep. Uzbeks hung calendars with his face on it in their stores, pasted his picture to their cars, and turned out in the thousands to his rallies.
Seen in this light, Dostum, the new chief of staff of the Afghan Army, appears poised to give Karzai a victory among his Uzbek ethnic constituency in return for an end to his exile and a seat in the government. Dostum’s own power in the plains of the north and Karzai’s power as president thus appears assured by the quid pro quo.
While many see this sort of Machiavellian politicking as making deals with the devil, it actually follows Afghan tradition where the central government has often had little power in the provinces. Traditionally the Afghan president or king made deals with local khans who had real grassroots power, he did not rule directly. For Karzai, who has been called the “Mayor of Kabul,” this is perhaps the best way to keep himself in power, regardless of the public relations fallout his decisions might have among his vocal critics in the West who don’t have his grasp of Afghan tribal politics.
Brian Glyn Williams is an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. A longer version of this article is available from the Jamestown Foundation.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images