A poster depicting Afghan Vice President Abdurrashid Dostum, a once-powerful warlord who has been accused of a brutal assault, looms above a Kabul street. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

For 30 years, Gen. ­Abdurrashid Dostum has reigned as northern Afghanistan’s untouchable warrior-king: first as a ruthless pro-communist general, later as an armed U.S. ally against the Taliban and finally as a reliable, if unsavory, political boss who could deliver votes from his ethnic Uzbek followers.

Dostum has long been infamous for his cruelty: He has reportedly ordered tanks driven over enemies’ legs and been accused of suffocating hundreds of Taliban prisoners in sealed truck containers. He is also known for violent and abusive rages. But none of the accusations ever landed him in serious trouble. He was either too intimidating, or too important, to challenge.

But now, Dostum may have gone too far. 

His latest alleged victim, a 63-year-old former provincial governor named Ahmad Ishchi, has accused Dostum on television of imprisoning him, beating him and ordering him raped in November; Ishchi has also submitted to medical tests at a U.S. military hospital. This time, Dostum, 62, is not a warlord but the first vice president of a government backed by the United States and Europe — a heartbeat away from replacing President Ashraf Ghani.

Ahmad Ishchi, who says he was detained and assaulted on Dostum’s orders last month, displays an injury on his leg at his home in Kabul on Dec. 13. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

And this time, Afghans nationwide — including members of Dostum’s once-quiescent Uzbek minority — are reacting with outrage. Social media has exploded with unprintable jokes and images of Ghani and his aides wearing steel trousers. The burly strongman, who long controlled a strategic border region with Central Asia and publicly forced supplicants to kiss his hand, has become a national embarrassment. 

Ghani, a former World Bank official, is under pressure from Western donors to prosecute Dostum and suspend him from office. Many Afghan analysts are calling this a make-or-break chance for Ghani to install the rule of law in a society where warlord culture has long prevailed. The attorney general announced recently that the allegations are being investigated “professionally” and “neutrally.”

“If Dostum is not arrested, it will be a huge dishonor, and the government will lose all credibility,” said Akbar Bai, 70, an Uzbek businessman who claimed he was beaten by Dostum in a drunken outburst in 2008. The incident ended with police surrounding the former warlord’s house in Kabul for months until he finally agreed to fly into exile in Turkey. 

Many Afghans are skeptical that Ghani will be able to bring the former warlord to justice. His government has been weakened by internal divisions and a perceived lack of legitimacy, with legislative elections delayed repeatedly. That has made it vulnerable to pressure from outside groups, several of which are led by other powerful ex-militia leaders, including rivals of Dostum. 

The president, who took power in 2014 promising to reform and modernize Afghan democracy, is also haunted by his own political compromises. He once denounced Dostum as a war criminal but then invited him to join his presidential ticket in a bid to secure the Uzbek vote. His predecessor, President Hamid Karzai, had also courted Dostum’s support despite the allegations of battlefield atrocities.

Ghani asserted that Dostum had reformed, saying that he was “not coming with a militia to take over Kabul.” He added: “He’s coming in a suit, to be vice president, based on a democratic election, and that is a profound change.”

The suit did not fit comfortably, though, and Dostum has spent most of his time in his stronghold, the northern city of Shebergan. This fall, he insisted on leading his militiamen out to do battle with the Taliban, then accused Ghani’s aides of conspiring against him when a Taliban ambush killed 50 of his troops. 

Now, even in disgrace, Dostum is playing hardball. Refusing to leave Shebergan, he has called the assault accusation another political plot, accused Ishchi of collaborating with the Taliban and declared through intermediaries that he will never allow himself to be investigated or removed from his post. Any such move, the intermediaries warn, could trigger forceful resistance and political chaos. 

“General Dostum is not answerable to anyone,” his spokesman, Bashir Ahmad Tahianj, said in an interview, although he conceded that Dostum’s guards may have “misbehaved” with Ishchi. “We welcome an investigation, but the government should be very careful not to enlarge or politicize it.” Dostum, he said, “has a long history, and he is the most popular leader in Afghanistan. He was elected by the people, and no one can take that away.”

Dostum still has influential friends, some dating to his collaboration with U.S. Special Operations forces that fought the Taliban in late 2001. He also maintains ties in Russia and Central Asia from his time as a pro-communist military commander in the 1980s. 

Moreover, he is only one of several former militia bosses with whom the Ghani government has compromised. In September, with support from Washington, the president signed a peace deal with longtime fugitive leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, hoping to persuade Taliban insurgents to lay down their weapons, as well. He has now asked the United Nations to remove Hekmatyar, a former U.S. Cold War ally, from an anti-terrorist blacklist. 

“Dostum may be the poster child for impunity in Afghanistan, but he is not an anomaly,” Patricia Gossman, the U.S.-based senior Afghan analyst for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email. “If President Ghani wants to demonstrate that he is serious about accountability, it cannot start and stop with Dostum, and it cannot be seen as selective.”

Representatives of Dostum have proposed settling the Ishchi matter through a traditional gathering of elders, a process in which he might make amends or agree to live abroad. Aides to Ghani insist that if enough evidence is gathered to prosecute Dostum, he will be removed from the vice presidency. But they also acknowledge that putting him on trial or forcing him from office would be legally complicated and politically risky. 

Even if Dostum avoids prosecution, however, Ishchi’s charges have brought new attention to other incidents in the general’s past. There is talk of reopening an international war crimes case for the alleged mass suffocation of Taliban prisoners in 2001, and several people have spoken up about previous alleged cases of abuse. According to Bai, a now-deceased Afghan senator was sexually assaulted on Dostum’s orders.

Perhaps just as important, the old warlord’s sway over hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks in the north may be weakening. A crop of better-educated, more-moderate politicians has been waiting in the wings, serving in parliament and other posts. Dostum’s loss of stature, they suggest, may finally allow them to challenge his dominance.

“In history, our leaders were poets and scholars, but when Russia invaded, warlords and illiterates emerged in power,” said Qudratullah Zaki, 45, an ethnic Uzbek legislator and an ally of Ghani. “Many people, including those who supported Dostum, realize that he is not morally qualified to hold his position.”

“This is no more the time for tyranny,” he added. “We need to deal with real issues, and we need to create hope again.”