Northern Warlord Flexes His Muscles
Personal feud becomes a test of the government’s ability and resolve to rein in powerful men with private armies.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Hafizullah Gardesh and Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Kabul
(ARR No. 282, 06-Feb-08)
Even for General Abdul Rashid Dostum, it was an unusual sight. The burly former militia commander, atop his Kabul home, openly defied the police cordons surrounding him. Protected by his private militia and backed by thousands in the north, Dostum once again showed that he is above the law.
The incident began late on February 2 when Dostum, accompanied by some 50 gunmen, staged a raid on the home of a political rival, Akbar Bay.
According to Kabul police chief Mohammad Salim Ehsas, the general was somewhat the worse for drink. His men assaulted Akbar Bay and several of his family members.
Zmaray Bashiri, spokesman for the ministry of the interior, confirmed this account at a press conference the following day.
“Dostum, along with [parliamentarians] Hashem Ortaq and Alem Sayee attacked the house of Akbar Bay, leader of the Turkic Council, while they were drunk. They were accompanied by 60 to 70 armed men, who beat Akbar Bay and one of his sons,” said Bashiri. “Dostum left the scene when the police arrived, and Akbar Bay was taken to hospital.”
The police then laid siege to Dostum’s home in central Kabul for several hours, until ten in the morning on February 3. The general could be seen on the roof, shaking his fist in defiance. His men, well-armed and ready for a fight, could also be seen on the roof and behind the walls of the compound.
But as the police attempted to make arrests, protests broke out throughout the northern provinces where Dostum has his power-base. In Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pul, Faryab, Balkh, and Samangan, hundreds of men poured into the streets to condemn the police action.
In Jowzjan’s capital, Shiberghan, where Dostum has his headquarters, his supporters burned down the office of Akbar Bay’s organisation.
Akbar Bay is a former Dostum ally who broke with the general and his Junbesh-e-Milli-ye-Islami (National Islamic Movement) party last year to form his own party, the Shura-ye-Turktabaran-e-Afghanistan, or Turkic Council of Afghanistan. Unlike Dostum, who comes from the large Uzbek minority of northern Afghanistan, Akbar Bay is a Turkmen, although his group’s “Turkic” name suggests an appeal to both these related ethnic groups.
Dostum’s political party, Junbesh-e-Milli, encouraged the protests. Sayed Noorullah, the party’s leader – Dostum has officially distanced himself from direct involvement in Junbesh – held a press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, to voice outrage at the treatment of the general.
“Those who attacked Dostum’s house want to destabilise the situation in the north,” he thundered. “Dostum is not alone: all the Uzbek and Turkmen tribes are with him. This siege is not within the remit of the interior ministry. Dostum stands above the interior ministry.”
Originally the head of an irregular military unit fighting for the Soviet-backed regime against the mujahedin, Dostum switched sides and became one of the “warlords” who caused devastation in the subsequent internecine strife. There were persistent allegations of human rights abuses committed by his troops.
Routed by the Taleban regime, the general returned in 2001 as an ally of the United States-backed Coalition.
Since March 2005, Dostum has been chief of staff to the Afghan armed forces’ commander-in-chief, a post that carries little real weight. His appointment was seen as largely ceremonial and as a way of keeping the general out of mischief and out of the north.
Dostum has chafed at his lack of influence, and has been active in the opposition bloc Jabha-e-Motahed-e-Milli, or National United Front, an umbrella group which has made no secret of its desire to replace the current administration of Hamed Karzai. The National United Front issued a statement of support for Dostum after the incident.
The standoff aptly illustrates Dostum’s position. It may have started out as a private, drink-sodden brawl, but ended up as a direct challenge to the power of central government.
Noorullah warned of even more serious consequences in the event that the government tried to rein in Dostum and his political associates.
“Nine of the northern provinces of Afghanistan will erupt if such actions are repeated,” he said.
Latif Pedram, head of the National Congress Party and a former presidential candidate, went even further at a press conference in Kabul on February 4. He had been with the party that entered Akbar Bay’s home, but denied the interior ministry’s charge that Dostum was also present.
Pedram told reporters that the entire north would secede from the control of central government if the authorities tried to take action against Dostum.
“The government was forced to end the siege of Dostum’s house when they learned of the large demonstrations in the north,” he said.
Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province and a long-time opponent of Dostum, told reporters that any talk of secession was nonsense.
“Personally, I have no animosity towards Dostum,” he told reporters in Balkh. “But those who say that all of the northern provinces back Dostum are just dreaming. I would never allow anyone to plot against the central government.”
Akbar Bay, speaking from his bed in Charsad Bestar Hospital on February 4, told his version of the story.
“At midnight, Dostum, along with Latif Pedram … and two parliamentarians Mohammad Alim Sayee and Mohammad Hasem Ortaq, with hundreds of men came to my house and beat me, along with one of my sons and two of my guards. If the police had not arrived in time they would have killed me,” he said.
Akbar Bay told reporters that Dostum was looking for some documents that he had in his possession.
He accused Dostum of committing murder and mayhem, and announced that he planned to mobilise the entire north against Dostum and Junbesh.
Recently, Akbar Bay has made public accusations that Dostum has been involved in the assassination of several well-known Uzbek political figures. He also said that the general had dealings with the Taleban.
The interior ministry’s Bashiri told IWPR that Dostum had indicated that he was ready to accept the rule of law, and was willing to answer questions about the incident.
“In our view, this is a criminal case and the police did their duty normally,” he said. “The file and all the details have been sent to the chief prosecutor.”
Political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria told IWPR that, in his opinion, the affair stems from a longstanding enmity between Dostum and Akbar Bay.
“This is not the first time Dostum has attacked Akbar Bay,” he told IWPR. “He has tried to kill him before. Dostum considers Akbar Bay the main threat to his power, and he thinks that Akbar Bay is being supported by America.”
This personal feud aside, Dostum’s open challenge to the central government was quite serious, said Oria.
“Dostum is putting pressure on the government. He wants to show people that the government is subject to him. And, indeed, this is true,” said the analyst, arguing that this incident showed how weak the government was in the face of the warlords’ growing power.
“Right now, all the warlords back Dostum,” he said. “They regard his success as their own. Others will draw lessons from this incident, and the nation will be held further in thrall to the warlords.”
Another political observer, Ahmad Sayedi, agreed, pointing to the dangerous implications this local confrontation could have for Afghan politics.
“The people are now alienated from the government,” he told IWPR. “They do not trust the government, and certain political and military circles are taking advantage of this. They are saying Karzai is the one who appointed Dostum to his post, and now he can’t control him.”
Many Kabul residents were shocked and dismayed by the incident.
Safia, 40, from the Deh-Afghanan area of the capital, told IWPR that Dostum’s triumph in this affair would embolden the other warlords, the commanders whom many Afghans hold responsible for the destruction of the civil war years.
“In the wake of Dostum’s actions, other warlords may have been a little afraid of the central government will now get bolder. They will perpetrate even more murder, robbery and extortion,” she said. “These men have no other profession. Their safety is derived from the country being unstable, so they do not want the situation to get better.
“Karzai should just resign if these thieves have established a haven right under his nose and he can do nothing about it.”
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif.