Dostum goes on a garden offensive to drum up votes

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The Independent Online

General Abdul Rashid Dostum was directing his Afghan presidential campaign, which he hopes will transform him from feared warlord to respected politician, from a comfy armchair in his rose garden.

Delegations of traders, mullahs and government officials were fidgeting on plastic garden chairs next to the swimming pool as they were served soft drinks by servants in matching burgundy shirts. The guests were waiting for his daily 4pm audience, ready to fawn and be harangued on the general's favourite topic: President Hamid Karzai is soft on terrorism.

There was no sign of the artists, women's campaigners and intellectuals who he claims are flocking to join his party. Instead, an almost medieval scene of power-brokering by one of Afghanistan's most notorious strongmen unfolded.

His bombastic prediction of becoming the next president of democratic Afghanistan is believed by nobody, but it looks likely that he could win enough votes in his ethnic-Uzbek fiefdom to be a power-broker and perhaps then demand a major government post or the chief of defence staff position that he dreams of. This is enough to fill many Afghans with dread.

General Dostum, a beefy 49-year-old father of eight with a bristly moustache and ruthless eyes, has come a long way since he started as a Communist trade union official on the northern gas fields. He has led Uzbek militias for both the Soviets and Americans, and in between has allied himself with and betrayed almost every major player in 20 years of turmoil.

During the civil war, his men were accused of raping and murdering like a latter-day Mongol horde. When he fought for the Americans in 2001, he was accused of locking Taliban prisoners into metal containers where they suffocated. He is not the only warlord moving into the new era of politics. One of President Karzai's running-mates has a dubious record and so does an ethnic Hazara candidate. Several of the others are backed by warlords including Mr Karzai's main challenger, Yunus Qanooni. Rashid Dostum is the best known, and perhaps the most hated.

In his bastion of Shebarghan, capital of impoverished Jowzjan province, however, he is a hero. Pictures of the general in heroic poses are stuck up everywhere. He rarely gives interviews to foreign journalists, but with his campaign going well he was in a talkative mood. Few questions were allowed to break the flow.

The general is keen to portray himself as a born-again democrat and a bulwark against terrorism, the strategy that won him so much US support in 2001. "I am one of the best friends of the international community in Afghanistan," he insisted, jabbing a finger in the air and occasionally banging the table for emphasis.

"When I am elected president - and I pray that I will be - I will start making this country safe and secure."

A question about his terror-fighting methods, with claims of human rights abuses, brought an angry response. "People who say these things are ill-informed," he said, reddening for a minute before again turning on the sinister charm.

He claimed he backs the reforms of central government, said his powerful private army is disarming - critics in Kabul dispute this and say he is dragging his heels - and insists that everyone in Shebarghan will have a free vote. Human rights campaigners say intimidation is not necessary - the electorate are far too terrified to defy the man who has led them for years.

A question about the general's health was answered with an invitation that nobody sane would accept. His adviser Faizullah Zaki insisted the general was always happy to demonstrate his health and strength. "Do you want to wrestle with the general?" he asked.