Abdul Rashid Doostam: Afghanistan's Damoclean Sword

09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the summer of 2002, I was stuck alone in the Mazar-e Sharif airport, fearing for my life and trying to figure out a way to get myself back to Kabul. The road was closed and a big fight had broken out between two influential northern commanders, Abdul Rashid Doostam and Atta Mohammad Nour. I was in Shabarghan to interview Doostam and visit war prisoners, and after that I was brought to Mazar and told to find my way back to Kabul. It was virtually impossible.

There were no flights, and no safe places for a foreign woman traveling alone to stay overnight. Standing under the hot, burning sunlight of Mazar, wearing a long pink skirt covered waist-high with grasshoppers, I had no idea what to do. I called everyone I could with my Soraya satellite phone and begged to be rescued.

Mazar-e Sharif become safe again after President Karzai called Doostam back to the capital and named him first as deputy defense minister and then Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan National Army until last year. But in February 2008, Doostam's people kidnapped Mr. Akbar Bai -- a former ally who eventually became a rival to Doostam -- and beat him so severely that he had to be hospitalized after finally being rescued by Karzai's people. It was at this point that Karzai could no longer tolerate Doostam and ordered the national army to surround his home, removing his army status and sending him to exile in Turkey. The people in the north of the country could finally live and breathe calmly and without fear after so many years.

I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif again several times since that day and most recently traveled with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a presidential candidate and Karzai's major rival in the upcoming presidential elections. General Atta -- the governor of Balkh and a strong Abdullah supporter -- was not in military uniform when he welcomed Abdullah. He wore civilian clothes, symbolically removing himself from his old career as the head of a militia that helped make this place one of the most progressive and safest areas in the whole nation. With the departure of General Doostam, the governor of Balkhhad transformed himself into a cultural figure and created such a safe atmosphere that today all Afghan national cultural events, such as Nourooz celebrations and international conferences, take place in Mazar-e Sharif. But when tens of thousands of Abdullah's supporters came running into the streets of Mazar to follow his vehicles out of joy and excitement and welcome him to the north, there was also fear in their hearts. The people here are deeply afraid that Abdul Rashid Doostam could return.

Local news headlines here recently reported that Doostam was in touch with Karzai seeking guarantees for his safe return. Just one day after our visit to Mazar-e Sharif, hundreds of Doostam supporters conducted large demonstrations in the north, threatening to boycott the elections if the exiled Doostam did not return to Afghanistan prior to the election. Doostam, who has been under the close watch of the Turkish government and hasn't had permission to leave, understands that Karzai needs him urgently to defeat Abdullah in the first round. Karzai knows he will face great difficulties if he does not have a clear win on August 20 and the election goes to a second round. For Karzai, General Abdul Rashid Doostam is the only person who can break the unity of the north and use his fearsome skills to either buy votes or force people to cast their votes in favor of Karzai. And so against the wishes of the U.S. and Turkey, General Doostam came back to Afghanistan.

I don't know if Doostam can actually make a big difference for Karzai, but Abdullah has a natural kind of support that spans all ethnicities and races among the peoples of the north and south of Afghanistan, who will become extremely angry if they believe the presidential election has been rigged. I talked to so many Abdullah supporters in Talghan, the capital of Ghondoz, and asked them what would happen if Abdullah loses the election. Noticing my Iranian accent, they told me over and over again: "The same thing that happened in your country Iran, when people didn't accept the outcome of the election!"

Repeatedly hearing this reply throughout Ghondoz in the north all the way down to Ghardiz in the south sent chills down my spine as I recalled images of Iran's post-election clashes. A genuine belief that the elections are fraudulent will create a chaotic post-election period that will be traumatic for Afghanistan. But what happened in Iran is a far cry from what could happen in Afghanistan, where the people are armed. I keep recalling that sad day in Mazar-e Sharif when I was stuck in the airport and was told about the horrible things that would happen to me if I was captured by Doostam's militia. I prayed to God for my safe return to Kabul, until I was rescued at the last minute by a UN plane. In the same way that my fate allowed me the good fortune to be rescued during a very critical moment, I can only hope that the fate of this upcoming election ends positively during a moment that could prove to be a crucial turning point in Afghanistan's political future.