Afghan Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam survived an assassination attempt on January 20 in a mosque while at Eid al-Adha prayers in Shibirghan, Northern Afghanistan. Posing as a beggar, the suicide bomber, who had strapped explosives to his body, blew himself up as he was held back from Dostum by two of the strongman’s bodyguards. The explosion caused no fatalities but injured 25. While investigators initially suspected the hand of al-Qaeda, a man purporting to speak for the Taliban claimed that the organization had carried out the attack to avenge the deaths of hundreds of Taliban prisoners at the hands of Dostum’s militia during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Although Dostum was a key player in the civil war in the mid-1980s and an ally of U.S. forces when they ousted the Taliban in 2001, speculation as to who and why such an attempt was made cast the net further afield. Suggestions included the Uzbek Islamists under Tahir Yuldashev (leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), who without Dostum in the way could gain access to the Amu Darya and entry into Uzbekistan, or ethnic Tajik rivals with whom Dostum has clashed. Dostum himself, soon after the incident, pointed the finger of suspicion to al-Qaeda.
There are merits to Dostum’s opinion. The attempt on his life comes at a pivotal time in Afghanistan’s politics where, if Karzai’s success in converting former warlord Mohammad Ismail Khan into a political subordinate are anything to go by, the seeds of political transformation are taking root. The assassination attempt could be intended to create a political vacuum in northern Afghanistan and re-fragment the Afghan system. In this context the Taliban connection may still hold water. An interesting study last September in the Asia Times detailed the existence of “two levels” of Taliban: the active Afghan and Arab fighters numbering a few thousand, and the Taliban-in-waiting in Pakistan’s Balochistan border province, where vigorous madrasa expansion underpins ideologically a swelling resource of future “cannon fodder” for a renewed campaign (www.atimes.com). If so, one theory goes, the January 20 attempt may have been intended as a re-run of the assassination in September 2001 of Ahmad Shah Massoud – the military commander of the guerilla forces that resisted the Taliban regime – and the beginning of a new chapter in the struggle for the country. Afghanistan’s fate remains as precarious as ever.