Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has appointed General Abdur Rashid Dostum as his Chief of Staff for Military Affairs. The appointment is seen as appealing to ethnic Uzbek demands to have a stronger say in the government. General Dostum was previously military advisor to the president until his resigned to run for the presidency himself last fall (Voice of America, March 1).
After the new Afghan government was formed, the Uzbeks of Afghanistan were unhappy about their level of representation in the cabinet. They had only two ministries assigned to their people, both of which are relatively unimportant. One is the Ministry of Refugees, which will be rendered useless once the last remaining refuges return home. The other one is the Ministry of Hajj and Islamic Affairs, which is only really active the one month of the year that Afghan pilgrims go to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. As a result, there was a widespread, although muted, unhappiness among the Uzbeks who felt betrayed by President Karzai.
Uzbeks found another cause for concern on January 20, when a lone suicide bomber blew himself up right after the Eid-ul-Adha celebration. The blast injured at least 25 people, some of them seriously. Talking to Jamestown about an hour after the incident, General Dostum, accused al-Qaeda of masterminding the assault. He did not name any foreign power behind the attack. His brother, who is the Afghan ambassador to Kazakhstan, was slightly injured in the attack. General Dostum himself was unhurt, although his traditional Uzbek coat was torn by shrapnel. Mr. Dostum had not complained about the formation or the makeup of the new government, instead giving qualified support and expressing his willingness to cooperate. Later, Abdul Latif Hakimi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the incident. He said the attack was payback for the deaths of Taliban members in 2001.
Investigators in the case found a telephone number with a Pakistani country code. A security official from the city of Sheberghan, where the bombing took place, says that when he dialed the number a person answered the phone, but hung up when he became suspicious (Hindokosh News Agency, January 23).
Already, human rights advocates such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Afghanistan Justice Project have expressed concern over General Dostum’s new post. Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called his appointment “astonishing.” He said whatever Karzai’s reason for the choice, it represents a step backward. Adams said Dostum’s appointment is probably an indication that President Karzai’s administration is not ready to face the warlords. Jawed Ludin, a presidential spokesman, downplayed the concern over General Dostum’s appointment (RFE/RL, March 7).
Not all the reactions were negative. In northern Afghanistan, a wide spectrum of the population supported General Dostum’s return to the government. The Jirga-e-Mardome (People’s Assembly), which is a collection of elders from the northern provinces of Afghanistan, called the move “a good sign.” Many in Afghanistan regard Dostum’s elevation to Chief of Staff as another move to quell discontent and to neutralize a potentially powerful adversary. Dostum, who is believed to be one of the remaining strongmen of Afghanistan, had been quite unhappy about the new Afghan cabinet for its lack of sufficient Uzbek representation (Pajhwok Afghan News, March 7).
The general came in fourth in the October 2004 presidential election, gaining about 10% of the votes. He had also considered running in the parliamentary election due this year. By appointing him to Army Chief of Staff, a largely ceremonial post with no command of a military unit, President Karzai effectively barred him from entering parliament as a strong regional and ethnic leader.
Dostum must also relinquish his powerful political post as the leader of Junbesh-e-Meli Islami Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan). By law, Afghan government officials cannot be leaders or members of political parties. The appointment also serves to broaden the ethnic base of the government, albeit nominally. Moreover, it draws General Dostum into the rank-and-file of the government and gains another ally for Karzai.
President Karzai similarly neutralized an opponent when he appointed Ismael Khan as minister of power and electricity. Khan was also a disgruntled strongman with a significant power base as the governor of a strategically important province in the western part of Afghanistan. By bringing Khan into the government, Karzai not only gained an ally, but also secured a province vital to the extension of his authority (RFE/RL Afghanistan Report, September 24, 2004). But although he had been branded a “warlord,” Ismael Khan was not nearly as notorious as General Dostum in terms of alleged violations of human rights in Afghanistan.