By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 17 -- One of Afghanistan's most notorious militia commanders took to the campaign trail for President Hamid Karzai on Monday, another sign of Karzai's dependence on Afghanistan's old guard of political musclemen as he seeks reelection this week.
After months spent living in Turkey to avoid arrest after an altercation with a rival commander, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, the leader of an Uzbek militia, held a rally on the last day of the campaign in the northern Afghan city of Shebergan to urge his followers to vote for Karzai. The endorsement from Dostum, who remains popular among Uzbeks despite a record of human rights abuses, could provide a significant late boost to Karzai as he tries to secure a majority in Thursday's first round of voting.
But Karzai's reliance on regional commanders such as Dostum has concerned U.S. officials and others who fear that Karzai is too willing to legitimize people with poor human rights records in order to secure votes. Among other allegations, Dostum is accused of allowing hundreds of Taliban prisoners to suffocate in shipping containers in 2001.
"We're obviously going to be encouraging Karzai to not let Dostum have a formal role in the government," said one U.S. official familiar with Afghanistan policy. "Until he came back, we were still saying: 'We don't think he should come. Don't bring him back.' Karzai, of course, is making his own calculations."
Analysts estimate that Dostum, who won 10 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 2004, could deliver Karzai 400,000 to 600,000 votes, perhaps more than any other regional or ethnic strongman backing Karzai.
Sayed Noorullah Sadat, a leader of Dostum's political party, said that Karzai has not offered Dostum a specific job in a future government but that it is possible Dostum could serve as a governor or cabinet minister. Before being placed under house arrest in Kabul and seeking exile in Turkey, Dostum held a largely ceremonial position in the Afghan military. Afghan political observers speculate Dostum is interested in serving as governor of the northern province of Balkh, home to the city of Mazar-e Sharif. The current governor, a longtime Dostum rival, has backed Karzai's main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Karzai has dismayed U.S. officials and human rights activists by steadily gathering around him regional commanders in his campaign for president, including his running mate, Mohammed Fahim. The possibility that such leaders could play a larger role in the next government "does undermine a fair, transparent democratic process in Afghanistan," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"It's mainly a question of political survival for these leaders who feel there is no other way for them. Through a democratic process they may not be able to hold on to power, so that's why they try to make these deals," he said. "Of course Afghans want to move on -- they don't want to go back to the same old structures."
Afghan officials say they expect that the commanders will demand payback from Karzai if he wins, asking for such things as government jobs or pardons for their jailed associates.
"Everybody who is campaigning for Karzai will ask something from Karzai," said Roshanak Wardak, a parliament member who opposes Karzai but said she will not vote Thursday because of poor security in her native Wardak province. "They will not campaign freely. I knew these people from before. They are corrupt, thieves, criminals."
Also on Monday, an American civilian working with the military was killed when a patrol was attacked in eastern Afghanistan, and a roadside bomb in the south killed an American military serviceman. At least 22 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in August as Taliban violence continues to rise.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.