Sheberghan, Northern Afghanistan. August 2003.
On the windswept plains outside this gas-producing town on the
steppes of northern Afghanistan is a graveyard containing the bodies of 114 commanders killed in the early days of the war on terror. Above each grave is a picture of the deceased, a fact which indicates that those found in the graves are not iconoclastic Taliban holy warriors of the ilk who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddahs and all forms of human representation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, as General Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance General whose turbaned horsemen shattered the spine of the Taliban’s powerful northern army during the November 2001 campaign for Mazar-i Sharif (the key to north of Afghanistan), explained to me:
These anti-Taliban cerik (guerilla) commanders died liberating our lands from the foreign filth and fanatical mullahs. Many of them gave their lives in the mountains fighting the Taliban before the Americans came to our lands after Sept. 11th.
After I heard about Al Qaeda’s attack on America I told my riders it would only be a matter of time before we had our chance to avenge their deaths and expel the foreign terrorists…I knew the Americans would be coming.
When the American ‘beeping joe doos’ (B-52 Stratofortress bombers) began to work in tandem with our horsemen and the 12 American commandos to destroy the Taliban and the foreigners…our chance finally came. Sadly, many of my people never had the chance to see their lands liberated from the Talib butchers, over 1,500 of my men died destroying the terrorists. Thousands more of my people were murdered by the Talibs and Arabs when they ruled over our lands from 1997-2001. Those brave men buried here are the real martyrs of our shared war on terror.
And then, almost as an after thought that seemed to be pregnant with menacing implications, Dostum bitterly added:
Their sacrifices are not appreciated by those in Kabul who sat on their asses (here he meant Tajik Defense Minister, Fahim Khan, the military head of the Jamat i Islami-‘Party of Islam’) during the campaign against the Taliban or those from the south who let the Talibs slip back to their homes to kill another day (in this case referring to Interim President, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun from southern Afghanistan). My people are the only real enemies of the jihadi fundamentalists in Afghanistan…and we always have been.
With these simple words General Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord who fought for the Communists against the mujahideen and their Arab supporters during the anti-Soviet jihad, summed up many of the contradictions of the on-going war against the down-but-not-out neo-Taliban and resurgent fundamentalists in Afghanistan. During the 1980’s Dostum fought to bring the social advances of Soviet Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the undeveloped Uzbek and Turkmen peoples of northern Afghanistan (the Uzbeks make up 8-10% of Afghanistan’s population while the Turkmen make up less than 1%). To Dostum, the perceived benefits of Soviet modernization of the sort already enacted in the neighboring Central Asian republics included the liberation of women, increased literacy, the breaking of the stranglehold on power exercised by the conservative village mullahs, and modernization.
In the ultimate of historical ironies all of Dostum’s ‘Communist’ desideratum are the now the objectives of the US-led Coalition which hopes to modernize Afghanistan’s society/infrastructure, break the power of the mullahs, and prevent the reemergence of Taliban-style fundamentalism in this still unstable land.
It is equally ironic that all of the goals of Dostum then (and now) were earlier opposed by the US-backed fundamentalist mujahideen factions (including the Tajik-dominated Islamist party, the Jamiat-i Islami, and the Pashtun parties based in Peshawar, Pakistan) which defined these social objectives as ‘infidel’ innovations. Among those Tajik mujahideen Islamists who fought against Dostum in the anti-Soviet jihad to prevent the implementation of such bidh’at (religiously forbidden innovation) practices in the 1980’s were Ustad Atta Muhammad, a Northern Alliance Tajik warlord who is still opposed to Dostum’s secularist policies in northern Afghanistan.
Like his Jamiat-i Islami Tajik masters (former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Massoud the Lion of Panjshir, and the powerful Kabul-based warlord, Defense Minister Muhammad Fahim Khan), the Mazar-i Sharif-based Tajik warlord Ustad Atta is an ex-mujahideen Islamist whose vision of Afghanistan’s future is too fundamentalist for the taste of Dostum’s moderate secularist supporters. The differing socio-political agendas espoused by Dostum (who is often described by his Western detractors as ‘hard drinking’) and Atta (a conservative), in part, explain the recent clashes between their forces which have involved tanks, artillery and heavy casualties (in October 2003, for example, as many as 60 people were reported to have been killed in skirmishes between Atta and Dostum west of Mazar-i Sharif).
The clashes between these two powerful warlords, both of whom are ostensibly members of the Karzai government (Dostum has been given the largely ceremonial portfolio of Deputy Defense Minister subordinate to his Tajik rival, Defense Minister Fahim Khan), have tremendous implications for the future stability of Afghanistan and the war against resurgent fundamentalism and terrorism in Afghanistan. Most importantly, the US must understand their clash in the context of its main objective in Afghanistan, namely the prevention of the reemergence of Islamic fundamentalist extremism in this strategic land.
In this context, a reassessment of Dostum’s role in the north may offer an alternative course to the current US strategy of achieving its objectives in Afghanistan by counter-intuitively marginalizing the secularist Dostum as a ‘warlord spoiler’ when there are greater extremist threats on the horizon. In light of the aforementioned description of Dostum’s role as a popular secularist leader in the north (he is generally well liked by the Uzbek, Turkmen, and Hazara population of the north who are grateful to him for protecting their liberal mini-state of six northern provinces from the all-conquering Taliban vigilante-militias until his defeat and flight in 1997), his multi-ethnic Junbish Party might actually play a positive role in the prevention of the reemergence of Islamic extremism in northern Afghanistan.
It is also the contention here that the establishment of a secular, multi-ethnic enclave in the northern provinces would have a positive demonstrative role in a federated (as opposed to a centralized, Pashtun-Tajik dominated) Afghanistan. In the process of promoting Dostum as an alternative to the Islamists to the east, west, and south of his lands, the US can simultaneously co-opt the powerful Uzbeks of the north who have traditionally been discriminated against by the Tajik-Pashtun-dominated Afghan state.
This reassessment of Dostum’s role as a counterweight to the regrouping Taliban in southern Afghanistan and creeping fundamentalism in a broad swath of land extending from Herat in the West, through Mazar-i Sharif in the north, to Jalalabad in the east, is based on field research I carried out in lands dominated by Dostum’s Junbish Party in August 2003. In particular, as I traveled through the province of Jowzjan, the bastion of Dostum’s power in the north, I came to the gradual conclusion that the society being constructed in this region by his Junbish Party offered an interesting alternative to that found in many other parts of Afghanistan.
In that summer burqas were being enforced in the Tajik lands to the east of Mazar-i Sharif, foreign NGO workers and US troops were being ambushed by neo-Taliban fighters in the Pashtun south, and Taliban-style laws (such as virginity checks for women) were being implemented in the Persian-speaking Tajik lands of the west around Herat by Islamist governor, Ismail Khan. By contrast, in Sheberghan, the capital of the Jowzjan Province, burqas were comparatively scarce, women freely attended schools that taught them English and computer skills (this at a time when girl’s schools were being burnt in the Pashtun south), shariah law was practically non-existent (attendance at mosque on Friday for example was hardly compulsory, Wahhabi-Deobandi-style beards were scarce), and, most importantly I found numerous examples of multi-ethnic harmony.
This latter feature, in particular, flies in the face of Dostum’s reputation as a Pashtun-slaying Uzbek nationalist. Prior to the Taliban conquest of his enclave’s capital, Mazar-i Sharif, in 1997, Dostum had a reputation for being a consensus builder among the Pashtuns, Arabs (a small minority traceable to the Medieval Arab invasions of Afghanistan), Turkmen, Hazaras, and Uzbeks of his northern mini-state. This ethnic balance was disturbed by the slaughter of Pasthun-Taliban fighters by one of his subordinates (Malik Pahlawan, who is currently residing in Kabul under the protection of Fahim Khan) who betrayed Dostum in 1997 then subsequently turned on the Taliban with a vengance. While Dostum has been blamed for the subsequent bloodshed between the Pashtun-Taliban invaders and Uzbek and Hazaras of the north, he was actually in exile at the time and has since restored the ethnic peace in the north.
Dostum has also been accused by human rights groups of killing many Pashtun-Talibs from the south during the November 2001 campaign, but reporters who were actually with Dostum during the campaign refute these claims.i I myself witnessed Dostum’s treatment of ethnic leaders from Tajik villages, Pashtun villages (including a former local Taliban mullah who betrayed the Taliban and came over to Dostum’s side during the November 2001 campaign), and Hazara villages, all of whom were treated with great respect at Dostum’s shura-councils held in Mazar-i Sharif. Far from being excluded in the northern provinces, these ethnic intermediaries were well represented in Dostum’s councils and the General has some right to be called a popular interlocutor of the demands of the various ethnicities of the north.
While it must be acknowledged that Dostum is a warlord whose agenda over the years has all too often involved self-survival, he is nonetheless widely respected among the peoples of the north for bringing moderation and stability to their lands while bloodshed, fanaticism, and ethnic conflict have prevailed elsewhere (especially during the 1992-96 civil war which barely touched Dostum’s northern enclave).
Dostum is also an open admirer of America’s role in Afghanistan and no friend to the Taliban who were allowed to melt back into their villages (only to regroup in 2003) by the consensus building Pashtun President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. While several of the other Northern Alliance warlords (most notably the powerful Tajik replacement for the slain commander Massoud, Fahim Khan) were loath to move against the Taliban in November 2001, Dostum’s seizure of Mazar-i Sharif brought down the whole Taliban house of cards and led to the capture of the vast majority of Al Qaeda terrorists currently held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
As I traveled through the provinces east of Mazar-i Sharif I felt entirely safe as an American (except when interviewing Pashtun and Pakistani Taliban prisoners still being held by Dostum in Sheberghan prison) and found few signs of religious extremism of the sort found in the south. On the final days of my stay in the steppes of northern Afghanistan my travels took me to the mud walled fortress of Qala-i Jengi on the outskirts of Mazar i Sharif, site of the failed uprising by the Taliban in November 2001 that led to the capture of John Walker Lindh (the ‘American Taliban’) and death of America’s first casualty in the war on terror, CIA agent Michael Spann. There I was surprised to see that Dostum had built a memorial to Spann’s sacrifice which read “We are grateful for your sacrifice in liberating Afghanistan from the claws of the Taliban.”
While this memorial certainly had propagandistic value in impressing the powerful Americans who are currently bankrolling Afghanistan’s redevelopment and propping up the central government, I had no doubt that the sentiments expressed on the marble monument were sincere. As Dostum shared his stories of riding on horseback alongside the fondly remembered American A-Team Green Berets as they called in JDAM and laser-guided missile strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda positions in November 2001, I could see that he genuinely relished his role as an American ally. This seems only natural as his vision for Afghanistan’s future overlaps on many levels with America’s ambitious plans for the country.
While Dostum has been criticized by Westerners for everything from drinking too much (a strange accusation in light of Western military tradition) to dragging a looter to his death behind a tank (a second hand story relayed by Ahmed Rashid as fact in his bestseller The Taliban that has been treated as sensationalistic journalism by all those who actually know the General’s close relations with the rank-and-file Uzbek soldiers), his role in post-Taliban Afghanistan and the ongoing war on terror must be reevaluated. As America’s resources are increasingly stretched thin by her involvement in two theaters of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia (a development that most military analysts feel has led to a resurgence of Taliban attacks on Afghanistan’s 1,400 km border with Pakistan), America may yet find an important ally in the bear-like Dostum whose dream of a federated secular Afghanistan converges with America’s own interests in this still volatile, multi-ethnic land.