Afghan Warlord’s Promotion Highlights the Bankruptcy of America’s Longest War
President Ashraf Ghani promoted a notorious warlord as marshal to seal his power-sharing deal. Afghan promises are turning to dust.
When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, his main political opponent, signed a power-sharing deal in May, it ended eight months of bitter post-election dispute. It also came with a disturbing price tag, one hashed out among rounds of backroom deals, tense negotiations, and desperate U.S. attempts to keep the government from imploding. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ghani’s vice president until last year and one of the country’s most notorious warlords, demanded a promotion to the rank of marshal, only awarded twice before in Afghan history. Ghani, who’d long vowed to clean out the warlords, complied.
Dostum, whose militias are believed to have carried out one of the most notorious war crimes in modern Afghan history during the early days of the U.S.-led invasion, embodies much of what’s gone wrong in contemporary Afghanistan—and especially the failed promise that the U.S. invasion would help create a cleaner, more transparent, more democratic state. Dostum still stands accused of torturing and ordering the rape of a political rival while in office as recently as 2016. After swift Western condemnation, Dostum fled to Turkey, where he enjoys a good relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It wasn’t his first flight to Turkey: In 2008, too, he’d sheltered in Ankara amid similar accusations that his men had abducted, beaten, and sexually assaulted a political opponent.
But instead of being prosecuted, Dostum is being promoted: His ascent to marshal became effective this week. While many critics, both Afghans and non-Afghans, observed the ceremony with indignation, Afghan media shrugged, while the warlord’s supporters celebrated the promotion.
“I send congratulations to all of Afghanistan,” said Mawlavi Baharuddin Jowzjani, a cleric and high-ranking official of Dostum’s party, in an interview with Tolo News about the warlord’s promotion. On social media, Dostum’s son Batur Dostum bristled at criticism and said, “such accusations will not harm the Marshal.”
According to an official of Ghani’s government, “the President issued Dostum’s promotion, but it was not his [Ghani’s] decision. It was part of an agreement which was proposed by Abdullah,” he told Foreign Policy.
“Bestowing on Dostum the title of marshal—after President Ghani vowed to have him prosecuted—illustrates yet again the complete failure of the Afghan government to deliver justice,” said Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Dostum is only part of the sordid picture of impunity in Afghanistan, as no powerful political figures have been held accountable for crimes including torture, rape and murder. These cases make clear why the International Criminal Court should carry out its investigation in Afghanistan.”
Dostum’s career, and this week’s crowning promotion, illustrate the role that warlords have played in shaping—and distorting—the fabric of modern Afghanistan. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, made his career in the 1980s, during the presidency of Mohammad Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last communist leader. Najibullah, locked in a bitter fight against mujahideen, outsourced security in large parts of the country to armed militias—such as Dostum’s—with negligible government oversight.
Warlords have existed throughout Afghanistan’s history, but they reached a peak in the 1990s as different factions, including Dostum’s, fought each other for control of territory and resources. Warlords and their abuses even helped create the Taliban: After one local warlord and his militiamen captured and repeatedly raped two young girls, a mullah gathered some of his students to attack the warlord’s fort. The then-unknown man was Mullah Mohammad Omar, who soon became the supreme leader of the newly formed group of militant students, or Taliban.
Dostum’s kaleidoscopic loyalties were soon on full display. In the early 1990s, Dostum and his militia were an effective, bloody force targeting rural communities with ties to the mujahideen. Then, in 1992, Dostum turned on his former boss Najibullah, preventing the recently ousted president from leaving the country. As Afghanistan became mired in a bloody civil war that later gave rise to the Taliban, Dostum allied abruptly with each of the factions in turn. His militia, the Junbish-e-Milli, became notorious for looting, raping, torturing, and killing. He ruled his own personal fiefdom in the country’s north until the Taliban dismantled it in 1998.
Three years later, he seized his chance to return—and to rebuild his power. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—carried out by al Qaeda, which was under Taliban protection at the time—Dostum, like many other returning warlords, embraced the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. It was in the early days of the subsequent U.S.-led war that Dostum and his men allegedly carried out the massacre of Dasht-e-Leili, in which hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Taliban prisoners were reportedly tortured and executed while in transit to Sheberghan prison, Dostum’s stronghold in northern Afghanistan. Sealed containers held 200 to 300 prisoners each. Reports from survivors of the transports described bound men, locked in the containers for several days without food or drink, resorting to licking the sweat off each other’s bodies and even biting into other prisoners’ bodies in their desperation to obtain fluids from any source. Few survived. The veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid described the massacre as “the most outrageous and brutal human rights violation of the entire war.”
The next year, Dostum received not censure, but his first big promotion to general, a gift from the pro-American government in Kabul led by then-President Hamid Karzai. That helped usher in a new era of warlordism in a country still recovering from the civil war, and it helped undermine trust and belief in the government, which ultimately helped pave the way for the recent resurgence of the Taliban, who are gaining in numbers and audacity just months after signing a peace deal with the departing Americans.
Apart from accusations of torture and rape against political opponents, Dostum’s militia continued to attack civilians in northern Afghanistan. In several cases, Pashtun villagers were murdered and injured under the pretext of “anti-Taliban operations” by Dostum’s men. According to witnesses, several villages were terrorized by the militiamen who faced total impunity thanks to Dostum’s position as vice president.
Then, in mid-May, Ghani made clear that one of the prices of securing political peace was to throw another bone to a man who littered Afghanistan with so many. While large parts of the country are controlled or contested by a resurgent Taliban, high-ranking politicians gathered in Jowzjan, Dostum’s home province in northern Afghanistan, to pin on Dostum’s new gold-braid shoulder boards. Oddly, the only man missing from the ceremony was Ghani himself—perhaps because Dostum’s latest act of political rehabilitation was a direct repudiation of the very visions of governance that the professor-turned-president laid out in his 2008 book, Fixing Failed States.
“The political elite of Afghanistan had a rare opportunity to found a functioning state,” he and his co-author wrote. “Most of them, however, chose to put private before public interest and carried on with their faction agendas and seizure of private gain.”
Of course, many observers argue that Dostum’s promotion, while jarring, simply reveals a much broader pattern of war crimes and impunity in Afghanistan, where warlords like Dostum are celebrated and their histories whitewashed by the country’s political elite.
“There is not the slightest doubt that Dostum has committed war crimes and had former or current political allies brutally assaulted,” said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “But among the warlords active in the 1990s, he has often been singled out as particularly bad. From my point of view, he was just an easier target as he had been associated with the former Communist government.”
Other warlords have been beyond any public criticism in Afghanistan, while some of them have more real power than Dostum’s often ceremonial titles, Ruttig said.
But for many jaundiced observers, men like Dostum would not have seen such an upswing in their fortunes without years of U.S. intervention in the country.
“How can anyone have faith in a government that overlooks war crimes, or worse, elevates its war criminals to the highest positions of public office?” said Erik Edstrom, a former U.S. soldier and author of the recently published book Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War.
Edstrom, who deployed in 2009 as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan, has become an outspoken critic of the legacy of American intervention, and he links the promotion of the likes of Dostum directly to Washington’s involvement in the country.
“A government that coddles war criminals and turns a blind eye towards atrocities is a government that promotes hypocrisy, cynicism, and distrust,” he told Foreign Policy. “The hypocrisy around war crimes is a feeling that unites Americans and Afghans, alike.”