Afghanistan: Kabul Siege Underscores Warlord Threat To Rule Of Law

February 03, 2008


Abdul Rashid Dostum spent years running swaths of northern Afghanistan like a personal fiefdom (file photo) (AFP)

Afghan police have lifted a brief siege on the Kabul home of a longtime warlord and current presidential adviser, Abdul Rashid Dostum, after he and dozens of armed men allegedly beat up and kidnapped a former campaign aide, RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Dostum is a former union boss in the gas and oil sector who rose to command ethnic-Uzbek fighters backing communist forces after the Soviet occupation in 1979. But his three kaleidoscopic decades as a militia leader have been marked by many short-lived — and frequently contradictory — alliances.

The episode could bring further embarrassment over the government’s association with the ethnic-Uzbek strongman, who spent decades as a powerful northern warlord but was co-opted by President Hamid Karzai in 2005 to take a vaguely defined role as “Afghan Army chief command.”

Moreover, comments by Dostum allies during and after the siege highlight a smoldering debate over the influence of current and former warlords whose actions undermine the rule of law and public confidence in central authorities.

The acting head of Dostum’s political party expressed surprise that police would respond by surrounding Dostum’s home, since he “holds a higher position” in the government than the interior minister, Zarar Ahmad Moqbel.

Settling A Score

Reports suggested that Dostum and around 50 armed men attacked and abducted one of his former campaign managers, Akbar Bay, and one of Bay’s bodyguards late on February 2.

More than 100 police or security officers, armed with assault rifles and machine guns, later surrounded Dostum’s home in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul for several hours, while other officers took up positions on the roofs of nearby houses.

Police later lifted the siege, with Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari saying security forces were referring the incident to prosecutors “as soon as possible” for possible legal action.

Both Bay and his bodyguard were reportedly freed and hospitalized.

The fiery Dostum’s northern-based supporters have been at the heart of several violent clashes in the past year, although Dostum himself has generally maintained a low public profile.

Dostum has been accused by international groups of involvement in numerous human rights abuses dating back to Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s.

Bashari suggested to Radio Free Afghanistan that Dostum was under the influence of alcohol during his armed raid on Bay’s house.

“General Dostum is still an Afghan government official, and you know that,” Bashari said. “This was a criminal case and the Afghan Attorney-General’s Office will follow the case with details to identify the guilty or the innocent and hand it over to the law.”

Threat To Police

Speaking at a press conference in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, Sayyed Nourallah, the acting leader of Dostum’s political faction, the National Movement (Junbesh-e Milli), expressed surprise over the standoff at Dostum’s house.

Around 150 police officers surrounded Dostum's home in a swank district of Kabul

Around 150 police officers surrounded Dostum’s home in a swank district of Kabul

“Certainly we were not expecting that from security forces — particularly from the Interior Ministry — to surround the house of General Dostum in Kabul,” Nourallah said. “[Dostum] holds a higher position than the interior minister in the government.”

A spokesman for Dostum, Mohammad Alem Sayeh, insisted there was no truth to the accusations against Dostum and warned of unrest if police tried to arrest him.

“If General Dostum is surrounded and anyone touches even one hair on Dostum’s head, they must know that seven or eight northern provinces will turn against the government,” Radio Free Afghanistan quoted Sayeh as saying.

In May, protests staged by his supporters against a controversial governor of the northern province of Jowzjan turned violent, leaving at least 10 people dead. Around the same time, armed Dostum supporters clashed with authorities in Faryab Province, forcing Kabul to send in troops to quell the violence. Provincial authorities in Jowzjan have accused his National Movement of rearming its supporters in the north.

In the context of Dostum’s most recent scrape with authorities, the attack on Bay and his entourage, Afghan National Assembly member Shukaria Barkzay warned Radio Free Afghanistan that impunity represents one of the country’s greatest challenges.

“The nonimplementation of the law is one of [Afghanistan’s] key problems, and this culture of immunity for any politically powerful people — whether they have legal authority or not — leads to their impunity,” Barkzay said. She stressed that the problem extends to more than “one specific group” and cited public complaints regarding “several groups.”

“Government officials are taking all these decisions about public trust, while the Afghan people want justice,” Barkzay said.

Political Chameleon

In 1997, after unsuccessfully challenging Taliban forces in the capital, Dostum was forced to flee his stronghold around Mazar-e Sharif to live abroad. He reemerged to back the U.S.-led attacks to oust the Taliban regime in 2001, returning to the area to reclaim control of large swaths of northern Afghanistan.

Dostum placed fourth among the 18 names on the presidential ballot in October 2004 with 10 percent of the vote.

The next year, Dostum was named by the Karzai administration as its “Afghan Army chief command” in a move generally regarded as an effort to avoid friction ahead of key parliamentary and provincial elections in September 2005.

A security adviser to Karzai under the former Transitional Administration, Dostum has long wielded major influence in some northern provinces and consistently chafed at central authority out of Kabul.