The South Asia Channel

In Dostum’s Debt

When the Karzai government announced last week that it would be reinstating Abdul Rashid Dostum, the controversial Uzbek general, as Chief of Staff of the Army, the cries of foul and protest rang loud. Though the position is largely symbolic, critics of the Karzai government openly accused the president of making a deal with the ...

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

When the Karzai government announced last week that it would be reinstating Abdul Rashid Dostum, the controversial Uzbek general, as Chief of Staff of the Army, the cries of foul and protest rang loud. Though the position is largely symbolic, critics of the Karzai government openly accused the president of making a deal with the "notorious warlord."

When it comes to Afghan politics there is usually more than meets the eye, and Dostum’s case is no exception. As usual in Afghanistan it involves some back room deals. The roots of which go back to August 2009 when President Karzai allowed Dostum, the paramount head of Afghanistan’s Uzbek community (which accounts for 10 percent of the country’s population), back into the country after several months of exile in Turkey. Dostum had been expelled (if only briefly) for kidnapping Akbar Bey, a political rival who had betrayed him. Akbar Bey who had previously worked for Dostum turned on him in 2006 and created his own party which aimed to steal members from Dostum’s Jumbesh Party.

The condition of Dostum’s return to the country was that he would bring tens of thousands of Uzbek votes for Karzai with him. The Uzbeks are intensely loyal to Dostum whom they see as an ethno-secular defender of their rights vis-a-vis the Taliban and Pashtun-Tajik-dominated central government. It was Dostum who rode on horseback alongside mounted U.S. Special Forces and brought down the oppressive Taliban regime in November 2001. Most Uzbeks see him as a milli kahraman (national hero). The Uzbeks tend to vote as a block as they are told to by Dostum and, upon his return, he urged them to vote for Karzai. By all accounts the Uzbeks came out in large numbers and voted for the incumbent president in last summer’s election.

In return, Dostum’s Jumbesh Party selected several Uzbeks for positions in the Cabinet Karzai was to choose in the fall. But then, in a surprise demonstration of its independence, on Jan. 2, 2010, parliament rejected 17 of Karzai’s 24 nominees, two of which were Uzbeks. (Of those nominees that were approved, only one was an Uzbek, Wahidullah Sharani, an independent Uzbek unaffiliated with Dostum’s Jumbesh Party. Ismail Khan, a Tajik warlord from Herat was similarly rejected as Minister of Power and Water.)

Several of those who were nominated for the Cabinet have been described as representatives of ethnic jang salaran (warlords). One member of parliament claimed that in rejecting the nominees of men like Dostum or Ismail Khan himself, they were freeing Karzai up to choose more qualified candidates who did not have allegiance to provincial power brokers.

This recent move by Karzai to reinstate Dostum to the position of Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army is an obvious effort to placate his warlord supporter who was obviously angry at not having a greater say in the government that he helped instate in 2001. The Afghan president still needs Dostum to continue his efforts to keep the Taliban out of the increasingly unstable flatlands of Afghan Turkistan, the northern third of the country.

For the time being at least Karzai has brought Dostum and his Uzbek coalition into his political fold. The president would seem to be continuing this delicate balancing act which has been described as "caving in to warlords" by outsiders who might not have his understanding of the importance of keeping the Afghan factions that destroyed Afghanistan in the 1990s in check. If Karzai had not reestablished his alliance with Dostum, he may have lost the trust of the strategically located Uzbeks who have supported his government thus far. As for the future, Dostum who was once an opponent of Karzai seems to have tested the winds and found that he gains more from working with the president, while Karzai is happy to keep his former enemy close at hand.

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