The lofty language, the dapper attire, even expressions of regret for making "mistakes"--all are part of an effort by Dostum, a onetime soldier of fortune whose name is a byword for a decade of warlord power, to resell himself to his compatriots and the world as a democratic politician and servant of the people in a kinder, gentler Afghanistan. Whether he and other warlords succeed in this improbable transformation is even more important to Afghanistan's future stability than is the fate of al-Qaeda remnants hiding out in the Pakistani borderlands. While the Bush Administration continues to make chasing America's enemies its first and, critics charge, only priority in Afghanistan, concerns about internal unrest prompted the U.S. House of Representatives last week to vote to provide $1.3 billion in economic and military aid. The bill demands that President Bush present a plan within 45 days to help secure law and order in Afghanistan. Otherwise, supporters of the bill argued, the country might lapse again into disorder and warlordism, the conditions that invited the Taliban to seize power in the first place.
If warlordism is out, Dostum wants to be part of whatever is coming in. Since reclaiming his old stomping ground in northern Afghanistan last November with the help of U.S. special forces, Dostum, who at 48 is graying and developing a middle-aged spread, has picked up the politically correct patter of the country post-Taliban. "We must never repeat the mistakes of the past," he recently told a convention of robed Islamic clergy. "Now is the time to defend ourselves not with tanks and armed corps but by the rule of law and establishing political parties." His rhetoric has persuaded at least one European diplomat based in Kabul to remark, "Dostum has made the transition to politician far quicker than most Afghan leaders. He's hung up his fatigues for a business suit." Of course, he still commands an army of some 7,000 men.
If Dostum truly has evolved, there's no doubt a strong element of realpolitik behind the transformation. Since the defeat of the Taliban, Dostum has reasserted control over his home turf, the ethnically Uzbek and Turkmen provinces of Jowzjan and Faryab. But the onetime master of the north now finds his position challenged by the growing power of his erstwhile ally in the Northern Alliance, the mainly Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami faction. Jamiat's ascension has prompted an unlikely alignment between Dostum and Hamid Karzai, the patrician Pashtun tribal leader who heads Kabul's interim government. In December Karzai appointed Dostum deputy to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, Jamiat's military strongman, and in March he named Dostum his "special representative" in the north. Dostum has also conspicuously aligned himself with former King Mohammed Zahir Shah. The moves suggest not powergrabbing as much as defensiveness. "Dostum is feeling threatened," says Ahmed Rashid, author of a best-selling book on the Taliban. "He's looking to ally himself with the King and with Pashtun aligned with the King." The cleaner Dostum looks, presumably, the better his chances with this crowd.
In a suburb outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif last week, Dostum was in campaign mode. Next month the country will hold its long-awaited loya jirga, or grand assembly, which will choose a transitional government. Dostum relaunched his old political party, the National Islamic Movement. Known simply as Jombesh, the group has a platform that rests on secular democracy (despite its name) and respect for minority rights, which translates to a federalist agenda. Addressing a congress of 2,000 party functionaries, Dostum hit out at "extremism" and "fundamentalism." Read: the Islamic politics of Jamiat.
Not everyone is buying the warlord's new clothes. Dostum rose to power as a ruthless brawler, the Mike Tyson of Afghan politics. For a decade he moved in and out of alliances with almost every major faction on the Afghan battlefield the Taliban included. His zest for brute strategy can be traced to his love for bozkashi, the traditional sport of the northern plains. It's not a game for the faint of heart. One team of horsemen battles to haul a dead goat to one end of a field; opponents struggle to wrest it back and drag it to the other, no holds barred. Whips fly, blood flows and bones crack. Dostum, say associates, was a natural.
Political correctness, on the other hand, fits his bulky frame like a suit several sizes too small. With his heavy jowls and beetling eyebrows, he projects little charisma. Just how democratic politics will fare under a man whose portrait hangs in every office, shop and school across his fief remains to be seen. "Dostum fits straight into the pattern of Central Asian authoritarianism that's digging in across the region," says a Western official in Kabul. "Anyone who imagines this is some roly-poly Mr. Nice Guy who understands democratic give-and-take is making a mistake."
Born to a poor Uzbek farming family, Dostum had little formal education and worked in the natural-gas fields near Shibarghan before joining the military during communist rule in Afghanistan. By the mid-1980s he was in command first of a militia battalion, then of a division. His big break came with the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1988-89. As the troop convoys headed home and the rebel mujahedin sharpened their knives, Dostum and his Soviet-funded army of tough Uzbek and Turkmen irregulars emerged as the only real mobile outfit the communist regime of President Najibullah could count on. "In 1989 he had a budget for 45,000 troops, but we knew he had only 25,000 on his payroll," says a former Soviet diplomat. "When our advisers confronted him over it, he'd laugh and say, 'Don't worry, I'll get hold of the other 20,000 if they're needed.'" The Soviets kept paying.
Dostum's mercenary troops achieved notoriety for ruthless courage on the battlefield and wild indiscipline off it. Bearing a legacy of 200 years near the bottom of a Pashtun-dominated social order, they seemed to take a special delight in evening the historical score, killing Pashtun mujahedin of the south, and looting and terrorizing the civilians.
Dostum brought the Najibullah regime down when he mutinied in 1992 and joined forces with the northern mujahedin. He and his cohort seized Mazar and set up their Jombesh. The following years raised to national art forms both the alliance of convenience and the stab in the back, and Dostum outperformed the rest. He moved in and out of alliances with Ahmed Shah Massoud, then the Jamiat commander; with Massoud's arch-enemy, the Islamist radical Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; and finally with the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban, enemy of both. Meanwhile, differences of policy and personality at the top of the Jombesh were settled bozkashi-style, as rivals succumbed, one after the other, to helicopter crashes and other dramatic rubouts.
Driven into exile by the Taliban, first in 1997 and again in 1998, Dostum returned to Afghanistan last spring to join Jamiat commander Ustad Atta Mohammed in leading anti-Taliban forces in the hills south of Mazar. But last year's wartime alliance has soured. Tensions between Dostum and his northern rival who also now prefers to be seen in elegantly tailored business suits have centered on control of Mazar. Capital of the north and key to the area's agricultural, oil and gas wealth, the city once dominated by Dostum has fallen increasingly under Jamiat's sway. Failure to control Mazar has dented Dostum both politically and economically.
Rising tensions have already spilled into sporadic armed clashes. Both sides have been rearming and conscripting fresh troops. Atta enjoys the support of Defense Minister Fahim in Kabul, who recently promoted him to full general without consulting Deputy Defense Minister Dostum. Fahim has also approved moving more tanks and armor to Mazar to support Atta. In late April a full-blown fight nearly erupted as Jamiat, in preparation for a parade to mark the 1992 fall of the communist regime, moved more tanks into the city. Dostum followed suit. When clashes broke out in outlying districts to the south, the city looked poised for a major battle. Under a U.N.-brokered pact signed May 5, both sides agreed to pull back their armor and turn over security in Mazar to a 600-man police force composed of troops from all five factions in the city Jamiat, Jombesh and three smaller Shi'ite groups. But the peace is an uncertain and provisional one. Notes a foreign military observer, speaking of Dostum and Atta: "These two will not accept sharing power. One will always want more than the other or think he's being cheated by the other." A local Shi'ite leader remarks, "The only way to solve this business is for both of them to leave the country."
That does not appear to be in Dostum's plans. With his Jombesh rejuvenated, he no doubt intends to emerge from next month's loya jirga in a stronger position. He surely hopes the assembly will erode the power of Jamiat, which today controls the three key ministries of Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs. Whether or not that happens, Abdul Rashid Dostum is one politician who still fields an army. Whoever rules in Kabul is not apt to forget it.