KABUL — He was America’s ally, a stocky, gray-haired warlord who fought on horseback alongside U.S. Special Forces to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001. But within three years, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum had so antagonized U.S. officials that they sent a B-1 bomber to buzz his house.
Now, after several years out of the spotlight, Dostum may again assume a central role in Afghan politics. He is a vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, one of two front-runners in the election.
The return of a strongman known for brutal, reckless behavior would be a troubling development for the U.S. government, which has spent billions of dollars trying to build a stable democracy in Afghanistan. As recently as 2009, American officials tried to block Dostum from returning to Kabul from a stint abroad. Then-U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry warned that Dostum’s presence would “endanger much of the progress made in Afghanistan.”
This time around, U.S. officials are taking no public stance on the swaggering former militia leader, hoping to avoid the appearance of meddling in Afghanistan’s election. People close to Ghani’s campaign say U.S. officials did not try to prevent him from choosing Dostum.
Such a hands-off approach is a stark departure from past U.S. policy. Interviews with former American and Afghan officials, along with presidential palace documents and State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, have revealed the lengths to which the U.S. government has gone to influence and then sideline Afghanistan’s “quintessential warlord,” as the State Department once described Dostum.
As the senior of two vice presidents, Dostum would exert considerable power. When the Afghan president travels overseas, the vice president becomes acting president and can make decisions and sign decrees.
Ghani once called Dostum a “known killer” but now says his ticket symbolizes reconciliation. Other Afghan officials, however, worry about Dostum again assuming a high-profile position in the capital after years in which he was based in northern Afghanistan. They fear that he could reestablish his fearsome militia, incorporating his followers into the Afghan security forces as U.S. troops withdraw.
Dostum denies harboring such intentions.
“They want to portray me as the leader of a coup. Those who say so are my enemies,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday. “They say I will bring my men, en masse, and pose a danger to the future. If I were a danger, I would have done something in the past 13 years.”
Dostum, a former plumber, wrestler and oil refinery worker from Sheberghan, the capital of the northwestern province of Jowzjan, rose to prominence as a pro-Soviet commander fighting the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. Switching sides multiple times during the ensuing years of civil war and Taliban rule, Dostum developed a reputation for treachery and siding with the winner.
Before the Taliban pushed him into temporary exile in the late 1990s, Dostum controlled a wide swath of northern Afghanistan. He printed his own money, owned an airline and commanded tens of thousands of militiamen. When the United States went to war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Special Forces and CIA officers worked with Dostum and his Uzbek militiamen to direct bombs onto Taliban front lines. During that period, Dostum was accused of letting hundreds of Taliban prisoners die, baked alive in the shipping containers in which they were held. He has denied responsibility for the deaths.
After the Taliban’s ouster, when U.S. guests would visit his compound in Sheberghan, Dostum liked to show them a pistol given to him by Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command at the time. Dostum would repeat the story of how he broadcast to Taliban fighters over the radio the voice of a female American pilot as bombs dropped on them. While recounting this to U.S. Embassy visitors one night in 2004, Dostum roared: “If an American woman can kill you, guess what the American men will do to you tomorrow, you pathetic dogs!” one staffer recalled. Then Dostum raised a glass of whiskey and toasted: “To American women!”
“He really sees Americans as blood brothers based upon the joint combat up in the mountains,” said Brian Glyn Williams, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote a book about Dostum.
But the feeling soon stopped being mutual.
Before the 2004 presidential election, the Pentagon was anxious to avoid internecine fighting between Afghan militias and security forces. Afghan leader Hamid Karzai also wanted to weaken regional militia leaders such as Dostum who controlled customs revenue and were resisting demobilization programs. Dostum and a rival commander, Attah Mohammed Noor, were regularly fighting bloody battles over control of northern Afghanistan.
Then-U.S. Ambassador Robert Finn had tried to persuade the men to focus on developing the oil and gas resources in their territories. “I tried to talk Dostum and Attah into becoming rich people,” Finn said. “But they’d rather kill each other over cows.” When the fighting continued, he cut off $1 million in U.S. Agency for International Development assistance to the commanders in fall 2002.
In April 2004, Dostum’s troops seized the capital of Faryab province and ousted the police chief and Karzai’s appointed governor. An Afghan army battalion was dispatched to restore order, but Dostum vowed to block its passage through Sheberghan and indicated that he might attack it. Given that U.S. military advisers were with the Afghan battalion, he was “threatening Americans,” said one U.S. official involved at the time, “and that was obviously unacceptable.” The U.S. official — and several others interviewed for this report — spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount behind-the-scenes events.
One night, then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called Dostum and warned him against taking action against the battalion. Khalilzad and the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan at the time, Gen. David Barno, decided to enforce the message by flying a B-1 bomber low over Dostum’s house in Sheberghan multiple times, according to several U.S. officials. “We really threatened Dostum very seriously,” one official said.
Dostum subsequently told the Reuters news agency that he had planned to help the national army and complained about the flyby. “My kids were frightened, but let me say that I am not the type of man to be afraid.”
Several months later, the Americans had Dostum in an even more vulnerable position. In winter 2004, one of Dostum’s aides called Col. David Lamm, Barno’s chief of staff, pleading for help. Dostum, a heavy drinker, had developed serious liver problems and needed urgent medical care, the aide said.
“The first thing that came to my mind was: Good, he’ll die,” Lamm recalled.
But American officials decided that helping Dostum would make him beholden to the United States. A twin-engine propeller plane was dispatched to fly Dostum to Bagram Airfield, the U.S. base north of Kabul. From there, Dostum, two aides and an American escort took a medevac flight to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, said an official who served in the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan during that period. Dostum spent 31 / 2 days under the care of Army doctors.
“I don’t think taking him to Landstuhl saved his life, but what it did do was gave him a much better quality of life,” the former embassy official said.
Upon recovery, Dostum hosted Khalilzad and other embassy officials at his Kabul home. Dostum had an Afghan musician perform for his guests and served them a series of cooked birds. “It was a super-awkward dinner party,” one guest recalled. But Dostum was grateful. “I want to thank my American friends,” he repeated.
Dostum agreed to come into the fold of the Kabul government, and Karzai anointed him with a ceremonial title: chief of staff to the commander in chief of the Afghan National Army. But in the following years, there were more flare-ups.
Around midnight Feb. 2, 2008, some of Dostum’s men burst into the Kabul home of a political rival, Akbar Bai. They abducted Bai and his 20-year-old son and took them to Dostum’s house, where Bai was beaten and allegedly sexually assaulted, according to Afghan officials. (The U.S. Embassy described the incident in a cable at the time as the “latest of Dostum’s drunken fits.”) In the morning, Afghan police surrounded the house. Dostum’s militiamen fired at the police, who were under orders not to shoot back.
The government placed Dostum under house arrest. At the time, he denied the assault allegations and said they were “designed to create instability in Afghanistan.”
After extensive negotiations, Dostum left Kabul for Turkey in November 2008. Many Afghans believe that he traded political support for Karzai for the ability to leave the country.
Before the 2009 presidential election, Karzai was considering bringing Dostum — who retains mass appeal within the Uzbek community — back to help swing the Uzbek vote in his favor. The U.S. government was firmly opposed. Nine days before the balloting, Eikenberry told Karzai that Dostum’s return would be unacceptable and “would endanger future international support for the new Afghan government,” according to a diplomatic cable describing the Aug. 11 meeting.
Karzai went ahead anyway and sent a chartered Kam Air flight to Ankara to pick up Dostum. Upon returning to Afghanistan, Dostum held a large pro-Karzai rally.
During Karzai’s second term, Dostum stayed largely out of the spotlight. He built a new house in Kabul and continued to spend time in Turkey, where his wife and children had remained. He was receiving a monthly payout from the presidential palace of about $70,000 for his cooperation, diverted from funding provided by the CIA, according to one current and one former senior Afghan official. They and several other Afghan officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.
In the interview, Dostum denied the payouts. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
An official in the palace’s administrative affairs department, as well as a Dostum spokesman, acknowledged that Dostum had received government money. But both said this stopped after Dostum’s current campaign began. Neither would specify the amount.
For the April 5 election, Ghani, a former World Bank executive who is an ethnic Pashtun, needed the Uzbek swing vote. Ghani said he chose Dostum as a running mate because he “is accepted as a charismatic leader by a significant number of my countrymen and countrywomen. It’s out of respect for their belief in him that we’ve joined forces.”
But Afghan officials and others worry about Dostum’s possible return. He no longer commands armed fighters, but he has tens of thousands of followers who could take up weapons at a moment’s notice.“He wants to restart his militia,” a senior official in the presidential palace said.
Dostum scoffed at the allegations. “This is just propaganda against me,” he said.
The former warlord’s camp believes that he will have good relations with Washington if he becomes vice president. “America has been our ally and close partner, and we would like [the relationship] to continue,” said Humayoun, the Dostum spokesman, who goes by one name.
A political victory for Dostum would resurrect a familiar strongman that many American and Afghan officials would rather leave in the past. Last summer, Dostum was invited to visit Washington with other Northern Alliance leaders to meet with U.S. lawmakers. Although Dostum ultimately did not make the trip, an Afghan photographer went to his Kabul home to take a picture for his U.S. visa. The photographer was taking a long time adjusting the lighting, Dostum’s posture, the angle of his chin, said a person who was present. Dostum was getting impatient.
“My friend, even if you take a picture of my ass,” he said, “the U.S. will know this is Dostum.”
Kevin Sieff and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.