Afghan man of war dons a business suit

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The Independent Online
RAYMOND WHITAKER The last time I had seen General Abdul Rashid Dostam was in April 1992 at Jabal os Sarraj, a town in Afghanistan where he had come to meet a fellow warlord, Ahmed Shah Massoud.

They looked improbable allies then - the slight, bearded Mr Massoud, an austere Islamist who had spent more than a decade pursuing a holy war against the Communist regime in Kabul, and Gen Dostam, bull-like in appearance as well as, by all accounts, his pleasures. He had precipitated President Najibullah's downfall by switching sides to the mujahedin, and had come through the Salang Pass with an armoured column to claim his reward. However menacing the reputation of the general and his wild Uzbek militia, it seemed a moment of hope for the mountainous nation.

Now, nearly four years later, Gen Dostam was in London, in the same week as Amnesty International described the period since April 1992 in Afghanistan as a "human rights catastrophe" of mass slaughter without end. Wearing an unfamiliar dark suit, he was seeking to encourage trade with his fiefdom in northern Afghanistan, particularly the possibility of gas exploration contracts.

Reminded of the Jabal os Sarraj meeting, he agreed that it was unlikely to be repeated soon: he and Mr Massoud are now bitter enemies. "I lent him those armoured vehicles to get through to Kabul, because Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [Afghanistan's most radical mujahedin leader] was blocking the way, but as soon as he was in the capital he forgot any agreements we had made," the general complained. "If they had been implemented, Kabul would not be in ruins now."

Others might argue that Kabul would have suffered more if Mr Massoud and his political chief, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, had not kept Gen Dostam's men at arm's length - they are known as gelim jam (carpet- takers), according to the Amnesty report, because of their propensity for looting.

On New Year's Day 1994 the warlord changed sides again. He and Mr Hekmatyar, who had been bombarding the capital for months in an attempt to seize power, launched a combined assault on New Year's Day 1994 which levelled more areas of Kabul and came within a couple of hundred yards of the presidential palace before Mr Massoud beat them back.

Since then Gen Dostam has kept mainly to his northern stronghold, based on Mazar e Sharif, the country's second largest city. He is reported to receive arms and money from his fellow Uzbeks in neighbouring Uzbekistan, has warplanes with which he occasionally bombs Kabul and is now even conducting his own foreign policy. He denies, however, that his movement "takes orders from others". Nor does he accept that his efforts to do deals on behalf of his part of the country could hasten the formal break-up of Afghanistan: "What we plan is for the good of the nation as a whole - I don't think any true Afghan would be against it."

Amnesty reports that Gen Dostam's followers attack undefended civilian targets, kill out of hand, loot, rape and run unofficial detention centres where torture is routine. But so does every other faction in Afghanistan - despairing of persuading them to show any respect for human rights, the organisation has called on outside powers to exert more pressure for a peace settlement and to cut off the supply of arms.

Among those to have provided arms since the mujahedin takeover, Amnesty names India, Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Fighting has subsided into a bloody stalemate in the past few weeks, and the UN special envoy, Mahmoud Mestiri, believes he has made progress towards setting up an interim council to take over power. A government spokesman said last week that Mr Rabbani was ready to step down if an agreed mechanism for the handover could be established. Gen Dostam said he was heading for talks in Pakistan that could endorse Mr Mestiri's efforts.

British diplomats dealing with the area met the general last week. "Whatever one's views on him," said a source, "he is a main player in the country." And as the general pointed out, "People who called me unIslamic and a Communist, like Rabbani, now want to talk to me."

With Afghanistan's most effective military force at his command - it was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union - no peace deal can work without Gen Dostam. But even by the treacherous standards of Afghan power politics, he is not widely trusted. Those who do not harbour ethnic suspicions or consider him a Communist puppet see him as nothing but a mercenary.

Holding court in London, the warlord complained of a "campaign of disinformation", and protested: "We have never wanted any fighting, except when it was forced on us. Then we had to defend ourselves."

What about his sudden changes of allegiance? "I brought down a hated Communist leader for the good of the country. The next time we were simply defending ourselves. Some people call it warmongering - I deny that."