KABUL — Afghan Vice President Abdurrashid Dostum — a former warlord who lived in exile for more than a year following sexual assault charges — returned Sunday to a warm government welcome, but his legal problems still loom and a bombing that killed 14 people as he arrived reflects continuing challenges ahead.
After his flight arrived from Turkey, top officials with President Ashraf Ghani’s administration — along with a crowd of supporters — greeted Dostum on the tarmac at Kabul’s international airport, applauding as he disembarked and headed toward a waiting car.
Moments after he left the airport, an explosion detonated by a suicide bomber killed 14 people and injured 60 near the entrance — an incident that, while not harming Dostum, showed the intense feelings his return brings.
“I pay greetings to all Afghans,” Dostum later said during a ceremony held at his office in Kabul, where he vowed to help Afghanistan find a way out of its 17-year war.
“I, as the first vice president, consider peace with the Taliban more important than any other duty,” he said, adding that he planned to meet with Ghani on Monday.
Dostum — an Afghan civil war general known for vicious, mercurial behavior while ruling over the northern border region for 30 years — flew to Turkey after a political rival accused the vice president in 2016 of beating him, imprisoning him for days and ordering his rape.
The case has been a headache for Ghani, who, despite calling Dostum a “known killer” in the past, picked him as his running mate for the 2014 presidential election in a move to secure support along the country’s northern provinces near the border with Uzbekistan. Dostum, 63, is an ethnic Uzbek.
A stubborn wave of demonstrations calling for Dostum’s return rolled through northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, shutting down local government offices in what appeared to be a mounting threat to stability in that part of the country while Afghan forces struggle to fend off Taliban and Islamic State fighters advancing in the area.
Those rallies grew larger after Afghan soldiers arrested a political protege of Dostum’s in Faryab province — Nizamuddin Qaisari, a district police chief — over threats to kill government officials.
Last week, a video that showed Afghan soldiers kicking Qaisari’s wounded and handcuffed bodyguards after a brief battle leading to the arrest added more fuel to the fire.
Ghani, under pressure from international donors to both restore stability and enforce his wobbly government’s rule of law, arranged for Dostum to resume his role as first vice president while still facing the charges levied against him.
Repeating Dostum’s excuse last year that he flew to Turkey for unspecified “medical treatment,” Ghani’s office said in a statement that “the treatment is completed now” and that the hard-charging warrior turned politician who is a heartbeat away from the presidency is ready to resume office.
Dostum, a heavy drinker, has experienced liver problems in the past.
“The legal issues are related to justice and judicial institutions,” said Ghani’s top spokesman, Haroon Chakhansuri. “They are independent in their work and will deal with all issues in accordance to the law.”
His supporters in the northern provinces celebrated in the streets upon hearing the news of his return.
Nasrullah Makhdoom Zada, a council member in the Jowzjan province that Dostum calls home, said the return of “the general” will mean greater security for the area.
“Taliban and Daesh will get lost in the north,” Makhdoom said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.
Haris Wadan, an Afghan journalist based in the north, said there is likely to be new energy behind candidates with Dostum’s National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan party in the October parliamentary elections.
“These protests illustrated that Dostum still matters,” Wadan said.
What his return means for Ghani is uncertain.
While potentially restoring stability in northern Afghanistan, the renewed alliance could backfire in several ways, analysts say.
Dostum — who has reportedly ordered tanks driven over enemies’ legs and was accused of suffocating hundreds of Taliban prisoners inside sealed truck containers — could ignore the charges against him and resume acting with a sense of impunity.
That would embarrass Ghani, who last year faced a similar problem when he fired Atta Mohammad Noor, a provincial governor of the northern Balkh province who ran that area as his own fiefdom, only to see Noor continue operating as a shadow governor.
Dostum, known for switching allegiances to advance his own goals, might also turn on Ghani politically, damaging the president’s prospects for another term by siphoning votes during next year’s elections.
Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Dostum’s return is “a risk and reward” for Ghani.
While Dostum could again help secure the Uzbek vote, the allegations against him could weigh down the president, which may prompt Ghani to seek another running mate next year.
“You don’t want to have him against you, but at the same time, there are certain liabilities to having him with you because of the criminal allegations,” Worden said.
Shortly after he fled to Turkey, Dostum — feeling cast aside by the Ghani administration — joined Noor and Mohammed Mohaqeq, an ethnic Hazara leader, to form the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan, a group rooted in dissatisfaction with how the government is being run.
Dostum then tried to return to Afghanistan through Mazar-e Sharif, in the north, but the Ghani administration ordered that his plane be turned away.
“Ghani is really between a rock and a hard place here,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“On the one hand, he wants to demonstrate to the international community that he takes the rule of law and corruption issues seriously and that he is going to ensure that a proper investigation is done and efforts will be made to bring Dostum to justice if necessary,” Kugelman said. “On the other hand, he is very leery, I think, of the possibility that bringing Dostum back could cause more volatility in a country that is already experiencing plenty of it.”
Dostum has returned from exile before.
In 2009, then-President Hamid Karzai forced Dostum to leave for Turkey over allegations that he beat, abducted and ordered the sexual assault of another political rival, Akbar Bai.
Dostum was allowed to come back a few weeks before that year’s elections, throwing his weight behind Karzai to help him win another term.
On Sunday, Ghani made Dostum feel welcomed.
Before he arrived, billboards depicting the vice president’s face were erected along the roads leading from the airport to his mansion in Kabul.
During his nationally televised speech, Dostum said he appreciated the warm welcome, but, in a sign of tensions to come, said he believes Qaisari’s arrest “was not a fair movement.”
Some of Dostum’s supporters drove to Kabul from Faryab and Jowzjan provinces to greet the burly, effusive leader, joining a throng of people just outside the airport entrance.
Their glee over his return, however, darkened when a bomb exploded near the airport entrance.
Kabul police said that, in addition to the 14 people killed — some of them security forces there to protect Dostum — 60 people were wounded.
The allegations against Dostum occurred in 2016, when Ahmad Ishchi, a former Faryab provincial governor often at odds with Dostum, publicly accused the vice president of beating him, then holding him hostage at his private compound, where Ishchi claims to have been raped.
Dostum has denied those charges, calling them part of a political conspiracy against him.
Ishchi said he looks forward to finally seeing Dostum brought to justice.
But given the political stakes for Ghani, Ishchi said he suspects the Afghan justice system might still tip Dostum’s way.
“If the judiciary organizations do not maintain impartiality, we will take our case to international courts,” Ishchi said. “We will continue our fight for justice.”
Sayed Sahaluddin contributed to this report.