As you enter the dusty plains city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan you are greeted by what has to be one of the most striking billboards in all of Eurasia. It features Northern Alliance (NA) commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum and two blond haired, blue eyed U.S. Green Berets planning a joint attack on the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom. Below the picture the sign proclaims in English “Thank you to the American military for liberating Afghanistan from terrorism.”
To truly understand this unusual phenomenon, one has to travel north of the Afghan capital of Kabul over the Hindu Kush Mountains and down into to the flat lands of the Uzbeks and Turkmen. During the Afghan Civil War (1992-98) Dostum, a pro-Communist warlord (who was more of an ethno-opportunist than a bona fide Communist), used his power to carve out a secular multi-ethnic enclave in this northern steppe land that was dominated by the Uzbeks and their kin, the Turkmen. Stability in this enclave was maintained by Dostum’s policy of co-opting local Pashtun tribes as well as Uzbekified Arabs (descendents of Medieval invaders) and Hazaras.
Dostum was, however, betrayed by one of his subordinates and his mini-state in the north was overrun by the Pashtun-led Taliban in 1998. By the spring of 2001, Dostum had reunited his followers in the inaccessible Hindu Kush Mountains and, with Ahmad Shahh Massoud’s support, returned from exile to lead them against the Taliban.
Tajik Northern Alliance (NA) field commanders say that Taliban and al-Qaeda 055 fighters assaulted their lines with unusual ferocity on September 9th, 10th and 11th and it is highly probable that such attacks were timed to coincide with the assassination of Massoud (which was carried out by two Arab suicide bombers posing as journalists). NA commanders whom I interviewed claim to have been devastated by the subsequent news of Massoud’s death and several of them voiced the opinion that they might not have survived against the Taliban had it not been for the timely arrival of the U.S. after 9/11. This reveals a key point to understanding the stability of the ethnic militias of the Northern Alliance. To a great degree, the unity of these anti-Taliban fighting units is based on the charisma of their leaders. This makes these leaders inviting targets for al-Qaeda and the neo-Taliban who hope to fragment Afghanistan and foment chaos among their opponents.
This overriding sense of personal loyalty to one’s ethnic commander certainly holds true for General Dostum’s Uzbek and Turkmen fighters. When Dostum arrived in the Balkhab district of the Hindu Kush to lead the rebellion against the Taliban in April 2001, as many as 2,000 Uzbeks rode to the mountains to fight the Taliban under his command. It was these same horse mounted fighters who fought under Dostum with such determination alongside ODA 595 (a Green Beret A-Team led by Mark Nutsch) to destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban and al-Qaeda field army after 9/11.
Hundreds of “Araban” (foreign Arabs) were killed in the bloody battles during Dostum’s push from the mountains to Mazar-i-Sharif. Later, between 300 and 400 al-Qaeda or Ansar from Pakistan who were trapped in the Sultan Reza school in Mazar were killed by Dostum’s forces. Hundreds more foreign fighters, including bin Laden’s representative to the north of Afghanistan, were later slain in the desperate Taliban uprising in Qala-i-Jangi fortress-prison which was put down by Dostum’s troops in November 2001.
For the most part, however, Dostum’s forces dealt with greater magnanimity towards their defeated Taliban opponents who were considered fellow Afghans. The sensationalist media reports describing a mass Srebrenica-style slaughter of ‘thousands’ of Taliban POWs in containers by Dostum’s forces in the deserts of Desht-i-Leila are dismissed by most knowledgeable observers. This unsubstantiated charge is especially criticized by those who know the history of Dostum’s relations with the local Pashtuns and his need to build alliances with them to increase his power base after the fall of the Taliban.
In reality, far from being a “Pashtun-butcher,” Dostum is married to a Polpazai Pashtun woman and he has always had local Pashtun sub-commanders in his army. I have seen Dostum interacting closely with Pashtun ex-Taliban commanders in the shuras (councils) he holds in his headquarters in Sheberghan. The Pashtuns’ respect for Dostum was clearly demonstrated in November 2001 when Mullah Faisal, the Pashtun-Taliban commander of the north, refused to surrender his encircled army at Kunduz to anyone but Dostum.
Yet, Dostum made enemies among Taliban extremists from Kandahar and the south when, under U.S. pressure, he broke his promise to send those non-local Taliban fighters who surrendered to him home . Over 1,500 of these Pashtun southerners were held in Dostum’s prison in Sheberghan for several years and other high ranking Taliban leaders, including Mullah Faisal, were filtered by the Americans and flown to Guantanamo Bay, where they still remain. In addition, all foreign fighters who were weeded out in the interrogation process, including the American Taliban-Ansar Johnny Walker Lindh, were handed over to American Special Forces by Dostum. Not surprisingly, Dostum automatically became a prime target for assassination.
The infamous Taliban prison uprising in Qala-i-Jangi in November 2001 began when one of Dostum’s chief commanders, who looked strikingly similar to Dostum, was blown up by an Ansar prisoner of war who had a hand grenade hidden in his clothes. Dostum’s security forces had been warned that such a suicide bombing attempt would be made on his life when radio transmissions from Mullah Omar were intercepted .
The attempts on Dostum’s life did not end when he hung up his famous green chapan (Uzbek riding coat) and began to integrate himself into civilian life as a politician. In January 2003 Dostum’s security services arrested a 27 year-old Pashtun man who was attempting to sneak into Dostum’s palace compound in Sheberghan with explosives. At that time Bashir Baygzad, the security chief for Sheberghan, announced that his interrogation of the would-be assassin revealed that dozens of other terrorists had been sent to the north from Kabul to carry out similar missions .
Dostum survived a closer call with death on January 20, 2005 while attending an Eid al-Adha religious ceremony in a soccer field in Sheberghan. At the end of the public prayers, Dostum was approached by a young man in his early 20s. As the disheveled youth attempted to access Dostum, his bodyguards prevented him from getting close to their leader. At the moment he was halted, the assassin detonated a bomb on his body which sprayed shrapnel into the crowd wounding 20 bystanders. In the resulting explosion Abdul Qadir Dostum, Dostum’s younger brother, blocked much of the explosion’s impact and took light shrapnel in his forehead and arm but General Dostum emerged unscathed.
Soon after the attempt on Dostum’s life, a Taliban spokesman claimed that the attack had been retaliation for Dostum’s role as a U.S. ally . The fact that the suicide bomber had a cell phone on him with Pakistani telephone numbers in it indicates that he was likely a foreign operative. In this respect, it should be stated that Afghans have been less inclined to engage in suicide attacks than foreigners and in the Afghan south it is foreign terrorists that U.S. troops have increasingly found to be involved in attempts to carry out Iraq-style suicide car-bomb attacks. Dostum himself had this to say about the attempt on his life: “I have battled the terrorists firmly and unswervingly, and I’ll continue the fight. They know that the freedom of Afghanistan and the toppling of the terrorists started from the north. Therefore, my prediction is that [the perpetrators] are connected with terrorists groups such as al-Qaeda” .
The attempts on Dostum’s life have not ended, and during my August 2005 stay in Sheberghan, his counter-intelligence officers thwarted another assassination attempt that went un-reported by the Western media. On this occasion one of Dostum’s sub-commanders, a local Arab from the north of Afghanistan (i.e. an indigenous Uzbekified Arab) named Commander Rowza, attempted to stage an ambush on Dostum’s convoy on the road between Mazar-i-Sharif and Sheberghan. When the plot was uncovered, Dostum’s convoy returned to Sheberghan and his security officials launched an investigation. To their surprise, they found that the failed hit on Dostum had been financed by “Arabs from abroad, presumably with links to al-Qaeda.”
The fact that Dostum has been persistently targeted for assassination is not unusual when one recalls that President Hamid Karzai has survived two close assassination attempts, as has his running mate Ahmed Zia Massoud (Commander Massoud’s brother). Attempts on the life of NA commanders, such as Dostum, and Karzai loyalists have the obvious objective of destabilizing Afghanistan and causing inter-ethnic tension of the sort recently seen between Shi’as and Sunnis in Iraq.
In the case of Dostum, the killing of this NA leader would remove a powerful force for secularization in Afghanistan and destabilize the Turkic north which has been supportive of both the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Killing Dostum, who is extremely popular among the Uzbeks and Turkmen who make up 10% of Afghanistan, would also divide and alienate this population that harbors lingering distrust of President Karzai, who is perceived as a Pashtun centralizer.
While human rights groups have referred to ethnic military-political leaders in reductionist terms as ‘warlords,’ the U.S. should be cautious about marginalizing key figures such as Dostum. Dostum is seen as a milli kahraman (national hero) by his ethnic constituency as a result of his role in ridding Afghan Turkestan of the Taliban. For, in the absence of pro-U.S. leaders such as Dostum, it is likely that there will be a power vacuum which could be exploited by the neo-Taliban and al-Qaeda alike to destabilize the strategically important north of Afghanistan.
1. Many of these prisoners of war would have joined the neo-Taliban insurgency and I myself interviewed several Pashtun-Taliban POWs held in Dostum’s prison in Sheberghan who openly proclaimed their continued support of the Taliban and the need to rid the land of the Americans.
2. Interview with Dostum’s head of security, Akram Pahlawan.
3. Attempted Attack on Dostum Foiled,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Reports. January 16, 2003. Vol. 2, No. 3.
4. “Taliban Blamed for Assassination Attempt.” January 21, 2005, AP/AFP/Reuters.
5. January 21, 2005, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.