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Dostum's return to Afghanistan: a nod to 'warlord politics'

On eve of presidential vote, the ethnic Uzbek fighter, who's been in exile, rallied his base to support struggling President Hamid Karzai. Some say the move undermines a new, more democratic brand of politics.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 2009

A crowd welcomes Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum from exile in Turkey during a ceremony in Shibergan in northern Afghanistan Monday.

Caren Firouz/REUTERS

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Shiberghan, Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has brought a notorious warlord and influential backer out of exile just ahead of Thursday's presidential vote – a sign that old-style kingmaking continues to play a powerful role even as the country tries to move to a more modern form of campaigning.

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On Monday, a crowd of some 10,000 men and dozens of horses surged and eddied around Abdul Rashid Dostum at a rally here in his home district. The aging warrior told the crowd to vote for Mr. Karzai and flexed his electoral power, saying: "If you mess with Dostum, you mess with a million people."

The dramatic photo-op, however, has spurred international outrage and undermined a newer kind of politics in Afghanistan. No sooner had Mr. Karzai finished the first-ever televised debate involving a sitting Afghan leader, than General Dostum touched down at Kabul International Airport Sunday.

The debate, and other new forms of campaigning here, such as door-to-door canvassing, are a bid to reach those Afghans growing more independent in voting. The rehabilitation of Dostum, on the other hand, plays the "ethnic card" in a country still deeply divided from factional civil war in the 1990s and an ethnically rooted insurgency today.

"Except in some big cities like Kabul, where people might cast their vote based on personal perceptions, the overwhelming majority of Afghans in rural areas will make the decision based on what their local leaders tell them," says Haroun Mir, a political analyst based in Kabul.

Dostum's controversial past

Dostum represents ethnic Uzbeks, one of Afghanistan's minorities. Inquiries into allegations of political violence led Dostum to seek refuge in Turkey more than a year ago. More serious allegations have long surrounded the warlord, including the mass deaths of Taliban prisoners confined in large containers as the Northern Alliance toppled the regime.

President Obama said several months ago that the US might reopen the prisoner-killing case. The US Embassy protested Dostum's return – something that may have played a role in Karzai's no-show at the Shiberghan rally.

Dostum remains a beloved figure for many Afghan Uzbeks. Supporters nearly trampled their barrel-chested leader when he emerged from his plane. At his compound in Kabul Sunday night, the surging crowd passed a goat overhead that was destined for a celebratory slaughter.

"I, as your servant, express my gratitude to Hamid Karzai for bringing me to Afghanistan," Dostum told the throngs.

Help in avoiding a runoff?

The move will shore up Karzai's support among the 9 percent of Afghans who are Uzbek. In an election where the front-runner, Karzai, may be facing a runoff – he polls at 44 percent, while 50 percent it needed for a clear victory – Dostum is poised to reprise a familiar role in Afghan history as a powerbroker.

What's in it for Dostum?

In return, Karzai will make the investigations go away, says Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University.

Dostum had signaled his support for Karzai in recent months. But his exile, and a high-profile deputy's support for Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, sowed doubt here in Dostum's northern strongholds about where the warlord stood on the issue.