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'Dostum the Taliban Killer': Afghanistan's Pro-American Warlord

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Recently one of Afghanistan's warlords did something that no warlord has ever done before; he apologized. The warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek Mongol who fought a long and bitter war against the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance in the 1990s and against the mujahideen anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s, shocked many Afghans by stating in the local press:

I would like to be the first person to say that we apologize to all who have suffered on both sides of the wars and to strive to have the current election as a new page in our country's politics in which war is not the solution for our differences, rather that, through tolerance for each other, reform and dialogue, we arrive at national unity.

This was unique, but not totally unexpected by those who know Dostum. As far as Afghan warlords go Dostum hardly compares to the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar "The Acid Thrower" who fought against Dostum and was accused of having his followers throw battery acid in the face of unveiled women in the 1970s.

Not all warlords achieved notoriety and in fact several of them were more like regional ethnic leaders than warlords. Take for example Massoud "The Lion of Panjsher," a moderate who fought against the Taliban.

As for Dostum, he was a horse riding Mongol from the plains of northern Afghanistan who fought to free his people from their hereditary enemies, the Aryan Pashtuns (often known as the Afghans, i.e. the ethnic group that brutally created Afghanistan in the 1880s by conquering the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras). When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s bringing all the secularism, positive ethnic programs and modernity that the Afghan Uzbeks had seen in the neighboring Soviet ethnic republic of Uzbekistan, Dostum led the Afghan Uzbeks in fighting for the Communists against the likes of the Pashtun leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar's fanatical mujahideen and even a Saudi Arab jihad volunteer named Bin Laden.

From 1992 to 1998, Dostum, who was the most progressive liberal leader in Afghanistan, ran a de facto secular state about the size of Massachusetts in the northern plains of Afghanistan. His capital was the ancient shrine town of Mazar e Sharif. A typical account of this period of moderate rule states:

"It was a normal life. I studied in Balkh University. We had female teachers. There was a medical college where we had female doctors. There were no restrictions on women. You could do your own thing," Even after the fall of the communist government headed by Najibullah, Mazar-e-Sharif witnessed peace under the rule of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. "Life did not change even after then fall of the communist government. We had freedom even under the rule of General Dostum."

Women were granted freedoms in Mazar e Sharif that could not be found in other parts of Afghanistan which were ruled by mujahideen Islamists who overturned much of the secularism of the previous Communist era that Dostum had fought for in the 1980s. By the mid 1990s, Dostum's mini-state in the north was, however, threatened by a new force that had emerged from the Pashtun south, namely the fanatical ethnic Pashtun militia known as the Taliban. By 1996 the Taliban had conquered Kabul, the capital, and converted southern Afghanistan into a grim religious prison camp where shariah Islamic law was harshly enforced. Not surprisingly, Dostum, the secular liberal who stood for everything the Taliban hated, was declared an "infidel" and his realm in the north repeatedly attacked.

During this period, tens of thousands of women, moderate Muslims, liberals, and non-Pashtuns fled the south to Dostum's capital which became a sanctuary for those who were repressed by the Talban's Orwellian police force. A New York Times journalist visited Dostum's realm at this time and left this favorable account of it and its ruler:

"General Dostum is widely popular here in Mazar-i-Sharif, the dusty city of two million people where he makes his headquarters, and not only among ethnic Uzbeks, many of whom take pride in the martial state he has created, with tank barrels and antiaircraft guns bristling from every mud-walled fort and hilltop. For many others, it is the freedoms here, fast disappearing in areas under Taliban control, that make him an icon.

''I think he is a good leader, because people here can live as they want,'' said Latifa Hamidi, 18, who is in her first year of medical studies at Balkh University, an institution financed by General Dostum. Like perhaps half of the population of the city, Ms. Hamidi is a refugee, in her case from Kabul, where her father was killed by a shell five years ago. She has nightmares about what would happen if the Taliban defeated the general and took control here.

''I want knowledge, and I want a useful life,'' she said. ''I don't want to be forced to stay at home."

One did not have to have a deep mastery of Afghan politics to understand that Dostum and the other players in the Northern Alliance opposition were aligned with America's own interests when it came to their desperate struggle against the misogynistic, fanatical, Al Qaeda-aligned Taliban.

But far from seeing Dostum as an ally, he gradually came to be depicted by the West as a brute, largely due to the unabashedly sensationalistic account of him found in the best-selling book by Ahmed Rashid titled The Taliban. In his book Rashid immortalized Dostum in a passage that came to define him for tens of thousands of readers who did not know of his liberal past as follows:

"He wielded power ruthlessly. The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that a man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body to mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched. The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging -- a hangover from their origins as a part of Genghis Khan's hordes and Dostum was an apt leader. Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death." (Ahmed Rashid, The Taliban, page 56).

It does not take an awareness of Orientalism, journalistic sensationalism, and a more latent pro-Pashtun sentiment in this description of the ogre-like Dostum and his "pillaging" Uzbek people to sense that more than a dash of hyperbole was used in the above account of people being "frightened to death" by the general's laugh. The author of the above quote subsequently apologized to Dostum for passing on the second hand story as fact, but the damage had been done.

Sensationalistic journalists out to make a name for themselves subsequently exaggerated the original tank story and further embellished it with their own macabre additions. The second hand account of one person's death became the killing of multiple people with tanks plural and Dostum, the liberal secular defender of women's rights, was transformed into a caricature that was part Genghis Khan, part Klingon villain from a Star Trek movie.

I have collected several of these "Dostum the tank killer ogre" stories in an article found here and have traced how the journalists spread the nature and number of victims of Dostum's tanks to include "ethnic opponents," "criminals," and "his own soldiers." Here are just an example of the exaggerated Dostum "the tank killer" stories that began to be spread at this time:

"General Rashid Dostum is in the habit of punishing his soldiers by tying them to tank tracks and then driving the tanks around his barracks' square to turn them into mincemeat. Not only is Gen. Dostum a massive man who can eat twelve chickens and drink more than two quarts of vodka at one sitting, he is perhaps the greatest challenge to [President] Hamid Karzai's power."

Thus Dostum became erroneously defined as a habitual human rights abuser who regularly used tanks to run over his various enemies and criminals, when not laughing them to death or consuming two quarts of vodka and eating twelve chickens in a sitting. Of course well-meaning, earnest, pro-women's rights liberals, who reflexively equate all warlords with misogynistic, opium dealing, anti-women, Islamist mujahideen/Taliban, fell over themselves to condemn the secular leader who, ironically enough, had fought against the mujahideen's holy war and was the only pro-women's rights warlord in Afghanistan.

Tragically for his moderate Sufi Muslim people, Dostum was subsequently betrayed and by 1998 his prosperous realm in the north was overrun by the Pashtun Taliban from the south. Once in control, the Pashtun fanatics closed Dostum's pride and joy, the Balkh University, brutally enforced the burqa, and killed thousands of previously-protected Shiite Hazaras as "heretics." Dostum fled to exile in Turkey where he was restless as he heard repeated reports of the darkness that had fallen over the land and his people in his absence.

Finally, in April 2001, Dostum could not take being on the sidelines anymore and returned to Afghanistan to help the outgunned Massoud, who was barely holding out in his mountain realm. From Massoud's enclave Dostum and a small band of Uzbek cheriks (raiders) were flown via helicopter into the high mountains of the central Hindu Kush to launch a rebellion that would divert Taliban troops from Massoud's hard-pressed lines.

Then, on 9/09/01, Massoud, the overall head of the Northern Alliance opposition, was killed by Al Qaeda bombers. Two days later Massoud's prediction that US cities would burn if the U.S. did not help him against Al Qaeda was fulfilled and the American giant woke up to the threat emanating from Taliban controlled Afghanistan. At this time Dostum contacted the CIA via the US embassy in Uzbekistan and offered his condolences to the grieving Americans. He also offered the services of his small band of turbaned horsemen.

But that was not all, Dostum had a bold plan. Dostum, who was bottled up in the mountains in a remote valley called the Darya Suf, claimed that if he and his men could break out of the hills and seize the holy shrine town of Mazar e Sharif on the plains, it would break the fighting spirit of the Taliban occupation army of the north.

Intrigued by Dostum's offer, the CIA flew in a six man Special Activities Division team via Black Hawk helicopter to Dostum's rebel sanctuary in mid October 2001. There they, and a subsequent twelve man Green Beret Special Force team known as Tiger O2, joined Dostum's horsemen in attacking Taliban positions in the valley below them. Their goal was to break through one Taliban defensive line after another and ride 70 miles north to the prize of the north, Dostum's old capital Mazar e Sharif.

Against all odds, Dostum's horsemen, seemingly from the Middle Ages, began to synchronize their cavalry charges with U.S. laser bombs guided by the Green Berets and make progress. Dostum led his Mongol riders and horse-mounted CIA and Green Beret operatives in charging the Taliban lines moments after the U.S. planes bombed them and mopping up the enemy over and over again.

The head of the Green Beret team was to report of this extraordinary campaign that saw Mongol Muslims and Americans fighting against the common foe, "Gen. Dostum was upfront and honest with me, and any member of the detachment, in any dealings that we may have had." Another member of the team would state "So much did he trust us and respect us, that he said that, if we ever go to war in another country, that he would gladly send his men with us to fight."

Then, on November 9th, Dostum and his horsemen, with the Americans riding by their side, broke out of the mountains. By this time the Taliban had come to fear Dostum and what he called his 'death ray' on the radio (i.e. laser guided bombs) and fled Mazar e Sharif as Dostum attacked from the south. As Dostum had predicted, his bold seizure of Afghanistan's holiest shrine led to the collapse of the Taliban army and his small band of 2,000 captured more than 3,000 Taliban whose will to fight had been broken. Five days later the Tajiks, emboldened by Dostum's attack, broke out of their enclave in the east and seized the Afghan capital. By now the Taliban house of cards was collapsing and Dostum was recognized as the man who made America's "invasion" of the Afghan Graveyard of Empires possible (there were only about 300 U.S. troops on the ground at the time).

But Dostum's moment in the sun was not to last long. Tragically, scores of Taliban prisoners who were being transported more than a hundred miles from the battlefield to Dostum's headquarters/prison died of exposure or battle wounds. Western journalists who were with Dostum (who was not with the prisoner transport columns) at the time reported that he ordered his band of unruly tribal warriors to take proper care of the surrendering Taliban prisoners. One CNN account reports the following "Dostum was there explaining that the foreign fighters should be handed over to the U.N. And he said over and over again, you know, the only way to unite Afghanistan is to play the big man and to kind of forgive." Another reporter there on the scene said "I mean they wanted to kill them [the Taliban prisoners] in the first place but Dostum said oh, no. In the interest of national reconciliation, we'll let these guys go home and we'll see if we can all live together."

But somewhere between 100 and 200 prisoners, many of them wounded in previous US bombardments, died in the transfer across northern Afghanistan to Dostum's prison while he continued to fight in the east. Predictably, reflexive anti-war, anti-warlord critics in America attacked Dostum as a monster and his reputation was forever tainted by the death of the Taliban prisoners.

This was the background behind my own visit to Dostum's realm in Mazar e Sharif in 2003 and 2005 to research a book on him which ultimately came out in September 2013 as The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Talban

While filled with trepidation at the prospect of meeting this larger-than-life warlord (Dostum had of course been reported to consume twelve chickens and two quarts of vodka in a sitting, run over myriad sorts of enemies with tanks plural and had earned the reputation "The Taliban Killer" among liberals), I found him to be more like a jovial mafia don.

While in the northern plains living with Dostum, I toured girls schools he had built, met with Uzbeks who hung his picture on the wall and called him baba (father) and "The Defender," saw him meeting with unveiled women politicians who he was financially supporting, visited several orphanages he had funded since the 1980s, and was even allowed to interview his Taliban prisoners of war (For photographs and video of these interviews and my journey to Dostum and his northern realm see my website here. )

Interestingly, these Taliban prisoners held in a Medieval style prison-fortress all openly condemned Dostum as a "bad Muslim," a "traitor," "friend of America," etc. and could not contain their deep hatred for him and his secular ways. But when I asked if "thousands" of them had died in transport from the battlefield (as sensationalist journalists were to claim) they refuted the exaggerated charges. None of the scores of prisoners I interviewed even knew someone who had actually died in the so-called "massacre."

Regardless of the facts, Dostum has come to be defined as a Neo-Genghis Khan and leader of what Ahmed Rashid called in racist terms a "pillaging people." Needless to say in my own time with Dostum and his tremendously hospitable people I saw no one laughed to death, ripped to bloody pieces by tanks or pillaged. On the contrary, I and my wife Feyza, who joined me on my second visit to Dostum, found a regional leader who was deeply respected by his people and who, in a land filled with opium dealing compradors, school-burning fanatics, women-stoning misogynists and suicide bombers, appeared to be as good as it got. And I am happy to report that in my last meal with Dostum he ate just one lamb kabob and a small portion of rice... which he washed down with just one Pepsi, not two quarts of vodka.