General Abdul Rashid Dostum, shown here at his palace in Shiberghan in northern Afghanistan on August 19, 2009, is a thorn in the side of President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Reuters/Caren Firouz
General Abdul Rashid Dostum, shown here at his palace in Shiberghan in northern Afghanistan on August 19, 2009, is a thorn in the side of President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Reuters/Caren Firouz

Even during his absence from the country, Afghanistan’s first vice-president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has continued to be a headache for President Ashraf Ghani, who has been trying unsuccessfully to bring peace to the war-torn country.

Last month, Dostum’s attempt to return home after nearly two months of exile in Turkey was allegedly thwarted by Ghani’s government. The refusal to allow Dostum’s return has sparked fresh concerns of a rise in sectarian rifts in Afghanistan. Prominent political figures have called on the government to permit Dostum to return home from Turkey.

Dostum has been accused of ordering his bodyguards to kidnap and sexually assault his political opponent, Ahmad Ishchi, a former governor of the northern province of Jowzjan, in 2016. He was exiled to Turkey in May when his case became too hot to handle for Ghani.

Asked about Dostum’s flight to Turkey despite facing criminal charges, Ghani replied that he had gone there for medical treatment of an undisclosed ailment.

During his long stay in Ankara, Dostum not only remained in touch with his followers back home, but also hobnobbed with many Afghan political heavyweights, including Atta Mohammad Noor – the powerful governor of Balkh province – acting foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq, who has been close to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

In Ankara, they formed an alliance to demand sweeping government reforms. The coming together of traditionally rival parties – Dostum’s Junbish-e-Milli (National Islamic Movement) and Atta Noor’s Jamiat-e Islami – assumes a lot of political significance, since the two powerful warlords have large bands of armed men at their disposal. Together they claim to represent the three largest ethnic minorities of Afghanistan. The depth of their support among the people, however, is yet to be put to the test.

The Afghan president did not sit quietly at the unexpected and sudden turn of events. The chief of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, Masoom Stanikzai, was sent to Turkey to persuade Dostum to return. But when the plane carrying Dostum was denied landing in Mazar-i-Sharif, it reflected Ghani’s panicky reaction to his return.

Ghani faces a plethora of problems; his own first vice president has become one of the biggest.

The Dostum phenomenon

This is not the first Turkish exile of Dostum, who has also served as chief of staff of the Afghan Army and deputy defense minister. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, also tried to escape from the Dostum phenomenon.

When Dostum traveled to Turkey in December 2008, he was not permitted to return home, as Karzai seized upon an incident involving similar accusations against Dostum as a pretext for keeping him in exile. But Dostum could not be kept away, simply because of the fact that he is the undisputed leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek minority. Dostum defends their interests vis-à-vis the Kabul government, which is often dominated by Pashtuns.

Dostum represents several of the paradoxes in the Afghan muddle. Despite his apparent ruthlessness, he is one of the very few warlords who have fiercely opposed to the fundamentalist Taliban. He has a  unique reputation as a defender of secularism as well as a champion of women’s empowerment.

During the anti-Soviet jihad, he was not one of the mujahideen, but a counterinsurgent who fought against the mujahideen faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. After the defeat of the Soviets, Dostum seized the town of Mazar-e-Sharif, which also had the effect of leading to the collapse of the communist government in Kabul. When the various mujahideen factions carved Afghanistan up into fiefdoms, Dostum ruled from Mazar-e-Sharif.

When the Taliban came to power in 1998, Dostum was forced to take shelter in Turkey. His return in 2001 helped the US to defeat the Taliban. With US forces at their side, Dostum and Noor drove the Taliban from Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2001, precipitating their  eventual fall.

Though Dostum is often depicted as a war criminal, he has been actively involved in thwarting attempts by terrorist groups to foment trouble in the north. Recently, he led anti-Taliban offensives in Faryab and Jawzjan, securing the government position.

The Turkish angle

Turkey has kept a close watch on Afghan political developments, establishing cordial relations with a number of influential political figures and groups. Ankara is a long-standing patron of Dostum, which is clearly evident from its mediating role in his exile.

After pressure mounted to act against Dostum, charges were framed by the Afghan government. But despite Ghani’s efforts, Dostum could not be persuaded to appear before the court. Sensing political trouble at home, Ghani is believed to have approached Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for help.

A week later, as Dostum boarded a plane to Turkey, an Afghan government commission drafted a memorandum recommending the dissolution of schools affiliated with the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Erdogan of masterminding last year’s coup attempt in Turkey. Although denied by the Afghan government, Dostum’s exile in Turkey was believed to be part of the bargain to close those schools.

Ghani’s troubles

Relations between Ghani and Dostum have been deteriorating for the past few months. Dostum has publicly claimed that despite his long experience and his role in securing Ghani the presidency, his advice is not listened to.

Dostum’s supporters argue that Ghani, who exploited his popularity to get elected as president, is trying to sideline ethnic Uzbeks and consolidate power in the hands of ethnic Pashtuns. His government is accused of neglecting security in the minority-dominated areas in the north where the Taliban and ISIS have been playing havoc.

The criticism of the Ghani government is also a reflection of the growing internal political dissension in Kabul. The power-sharing deal struck three years ago has still not been implemented. With no Loya Jirga convened to amend the constitution and incorporate the chief executive’s position into the legal framework, and with Parliament working on an extended mandate, the Ghani government finds itself unable to control the worsening situation. Followers of Abdullah are also extremely angry at the gradual marginalization of their leader in the decision-making process.

Earlier, Ghani fired Ahmad Zia Massoud as his special representative. An ethnic Tajik, Massoud had acted as a mediator between the president and the chief executive, using his ethnic identity and political influence to resolve differences between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.  

The opposition alliances are largely the outcome of growing disillusionment with Ghani’s style of governance. A number of powerful politicians have been ratcheting up the pressure on his fragile government.

In order to tighten his grip on power, Ghani may offer Gulbaddin Hekmatyar a significant role in the government. As part of the peace deal, Hekmatyar’s name has been removed from the United Nations sanctions list in the hope of motivating the Taliban to follow suit. However, this has proved to be a grave miscalculation on the part of Ghani.

Ghani’s problems are set to multiply if Dostum teams up with other power brokers. Even if he is found guilty in the Ishchi case, removing him from the vice-presidency will not be an easy proposition. Prosecuting Dostum at this moment is likely to divert the Ghani government’s attention and weaken the fight against the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

One can only be sympathetic to Ghani’s dilemma – the Dostum phenomenon.

Vinay Kaura

Vinay Kaura is coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Jaipur, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, India. His research interests include India’s neighborhood policy, especially on the western front; Afghanistan-Pakistan relations; counterterrorism and counter-insurgency; and conflict resolution in Kashmir.