In pursuit of powerful allies, Afghan government rewards a notorious figure
By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: July 22, 2020
KABUL, Afghanistan — Abdurrashid Dostum has been called a rapacious warlord and a born killer. He has been accused of ordering the rape of an elderly political rival and orchestrating the suffocation of hundreds of Taliban prisoners.
The former Afghan army general and ethnic Uzbek strongman defied efforts to arrest him and flew into exile in Turkey in 2017 while facing prosecution in Afghan courts.
But Dostum, 66, has always managed to remain politically indispensable in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani made him a vice president in 2014 after he delivered the Uzbek vote. And after a close election returned Ghani to power in March, his government last week awarded Dostum the country's highest military honor, the title of marshal.
Many Afghans were appalled, saying the gesture rewarded a notorious criminal of dubious loyalty. But Ghani's aides privately acknowledge it was a pragmatic necessity after the election left the president short of powerful allies. The honor for Dostum was aimed at projecting unity and strength to Taliban adversaries, ambitious neighbors and regional powers, including Russia and Iran, as U.S. forces recede and a power vacuum emerges.
"General Dostum is like a bank, where you put money in as an investment and you wait to use it. For 40 years, he has had that value," said Bashir Ahmad Tayanj, a spokesman for Dostum. He dismissed the abuse charges as "just allegations" and declared that his boss had long deserved the prestigious title. "He has the ability to resolve trouble with a single call. In areas where his forces are strong, the Taliban cannot enter. His existence is important for Afghanistan."
Already, though, the public rehabilitation of Dostum has been overshadowed by a new bout of private infighting that plagues Ghani's government, as the reformist technocrat has relied increasingly on traditional, patronage-based relationships.
The turmoil threatens to undercut government efforts to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table and present a solid front to the region and the world.
The core problem is an ongoing dispute between the president and his longtime rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who shared power for five unhappy years in a U.S.-brokered deal. Abdullah challenged Ghani's bid for a second term last year, with Dostum as his most important backer. In March, Abdullah refused to accept Ghani's narrow victory, held a rival inauguration and threatened to form a parallel government with help from Dostum.
After a month-long standoff, Abdullah agreed to head a new High Council for National Reconciliation but demanded other concessions from Ghani. This week, despite Dostum's new status, their agreement nearly fell apart after a heated argument over dividing up cabinet and diplomatic appointments, sending several prominent Afghans rushing to patch things up.
"The root of all problems is the lack of mutual trust among political forces inside the government," said Jafar Mahdavi, a political sociologist and former legislator.
"The political environment is very sensitive now."
With the peace process stalled and Taliban insurgents on the warpath, Mahdavi said, unless the dispute is resolved, "we won't witness the start of intra-Afghan talks any time soon. If the disagreement continues, the war also continues, and instability will pave the way for the meddling of foreign countries."
Critics say things started to unravel when U.S. officials signed an accord with Taliban officials in February that was too conciliatory, agreeing to begin withdrawing U.S. troops without demanding tough conditions such as a cease-fire. The sharks, they said, soon began to circle.
Iran, which borders western Afghanistan, has received millions of Afghan refugees and sustained a large cross-border trade, but official relations remain wary. Afghan officials have accused the Shiite theocracy of supporting the Sunni Taliban movement, in part to establish a sphere of control in the border region.
Russia, which invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s but withdrew in defeat, stayed aloof from Afghan affairs for years. Recently, though, Moscow has established ties with the Taliban and hosted its leaders at conferences. In late June, U.S. intelligence assessments found that Russia had paid bounties to Taliban-linked insurgents to kill U.S. troops, prompting calls to slow down the American withdrawal.
Pakistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, has been accused of secretly backing an especially violent Taliban faction, despite professing to support the peace process. Afghan officials worry that if the Kabul government is seen as divided and weak, Pakistan may press for a dominant pro-Taliban role in future negotiations.
One senior aide in the Ghani administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, said that rising concerns about foreign interference had eclipsed fears of a forcible takeover by the Taliban, a domestic movement with religious and ethnic ties to fellow Afghans.
At the moment, he said, the regional influence of a figure like Dostum, who has close ties to Turkey and Central Asia, outweighs his violent reputation and the rebuff of Afghan efforts to prosecute him in the 2016 assault of politician Ahmad Khan Ishchi, an incident that drew international outrage. Dostum was accused of ordering his bodyguards to sexually assault Ishchi.
Another official, who works on national security issues and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Dostum was far from qualified for an honor that has been given to only two military leaders in Afghan history. But he described it as "necessary" to strengthen domestic tribal and ethnic support for Ghani after the contested election and drawn-out battle with Abdullah.
"We needed Dostum," he said, noting that Abdullah had attempted to name his own provincial governors, provoking armed protests among local security forces loyal to Dostum. After he was promised the title of marshal, the Uzbek leader intervened and the unrest subsided. "This was damage control," he said.
Former president Hamid Karzai, who dealt with Dostum for years, noted that
"Afghans have strong values of right and wrong," but he said that "peace has to come first. If giving someone a title can help bring harmony and peace, then by all means," he said in an interview Wednesday. "Justice can be relative."
Other Afghans called Dostum's military honor a badge of shame for the Western-backed government. Aryan Yoon, a liberal member of parliament, said that instead "the government should have sent him to prison. The people of Afghanistan know who is a hero and who is a traitor."
Supporters of the government said Dostum was only one of dozens of senior figures, from various groups, who have been given official roles to unify the country and reduce internecine struggles. But critics said that reverting to patronage politics could backfire on Ghani, encouraging corruption to flourish and strongman clout to make a dangerous comeback.
"This government is like a big tree full of termites. Any wind can knock it over," said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence director who ran for president last year. "We don't need more warlords in the cabinet and peace negotiations. Otherwise, we will repeat the mistakes of the past, and when the Americans leave, the same powers will be fighting over who should control which parts of Afghanistan."
The Washington Post's Sharif Hassan and Aziz Tassal contributed to this report.