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.

Caren Firouz/REUTERS
A crowd welcomes Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum from exile in Turkey during a ceremony in Shibergan in northern Afghanistan Monday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

Professor Safi, meanwhile, questions the strength of Dostum's once-firm grip over the Uzbeks. "His credibility has decreased too much and he cannot influence even in his own province to get his people to come to Karzai," he says.

Indeed, while Dostum had predicted a crowd of hundreds of thousands at his rally in Shiberghan, the rally was smaller than a recent rally thrown by Dr. Abdullah in a Dostum stronghold, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Yet, among those in the crowd, fealty appeared absolute.

"Dostum is our father," said Nemadulla Sadaquat. "Our leader came and said to vote for Karzai, so that's why we are going to vote for him."

National unity a theme of debate

The Dostum drama overshadowed Sunday's debate between Karzai and rivals Ashraf Ghani and Ramazan Bashardost. Speculation was rife as to whether Karzai, who skipped the previous debate, would show.

The debates have not been as influential as in US races. "In America, all the population have TVs, literacy – they can understand," says Safi. "[This] was just a debate for the intellectuals in Kabul."

Mr. Mir noted, however, that it probably reached a wider audience because it was also broadcast on radio.

National unity was a major theme. Karzai, a Pashto speaker, began the debate speaking in Dari, and Mr. Bashardost, a Dari speaker, started in Pashto. Even Dostum, at his rally Monday, spoke in Dari, Pashto, and Uzbek.

"National unity is raised [as an issue] when ethnicity becomes a business for politicians," Mr. Ghani observed. On the question of involving ethnic warlords in politics, he took a jab at Karzai: "I haven't dealt with any warlord, haven't promised them any ministries or any seats."

For his part, Karzai said that "I want to get rid of all these phrases like 'warlord'… Afghans, we are all the same people."

That sentiment reflects a strain here that sees the ethnic conflict of the 1990s as too fresh to expect ethnic voting to disappear. To avoid a return to fighting, some argue, warlords should be brought back into the political process.

"Everyone would be happy if they could contain these people" through coopting them politically, says Mir. "It is not only Dostum; everybody committed crimes in Afghanistan…. Uzbeks should not feel they are the only ethnic group under the spotlight."

In scores of interviews with voters across five provinces, some voters have appeared more independent-minded: the educated, the secular, and larger minority groups.

Indeed, writes Martine van Bijlert, a Kabul-based analyst in a new report titled "How to Win An Afghan Election": "There is an appetite for nonfactional alignment. This, together, with the changing behavior of the urban young, may chip away at the expected voting patterns along ethnic, tribal, and factional lines,"

The report goes on to note that Afghans often identify with several groups – resulting in an electorate that doesn't bog down in static voting blocs, despite the communal nature of Afghan politics.

Smaller minorities tend to vote more as a group to gain visibility and protect their standing. Uzbeks are one of the smaller groups, as are Ismailis, an Islamic sect.

On Sunday morning, the head of the political party representing Ismailis endorsed Karzai, even though many Ismailis say the Karzai government hasn't done much for their group.

"The reason that Karzai did not support us was that our leader was not close to Karzai," says Duad Ali Khan, secretary of the Ismaili shura, or council. "Now the leader of our community has decided that he is going to be close to Karzai [and] all the Ismaili community will vote for Karzai."

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