Now brutal warlord holds key to Afghan poll

Election overshadowed by Taliban threats and intervention of notorious mujahedin

As campaigning ended yesterday for elections that could determine both the future of Afghanistan and the role of British troops there, the outcome threatened to hang on the impact of renewed Taliban intimidation and the return to the fray of a former warlord, notorious for savage acts of brutality and violence.

The Taliban warned that anyone whose fingers were stained with indelible ink, the tell-tale sign of having voted, risked having their digits chopped off. Hundreds of letters have also been sent out in the old Taliban capital Kandahar, warning people to stay away from the polling stations or face a wave of suicide attacks and "new" unspecified tactics.

But on the side of President Hamid Karzai, the pro-Western incumbent, there are equally worrying signs. The return of General Rashid Dostum, a politically treacherous ex-warlord, has heightened fears of yet another vicious cycle of bloodshed and lawlessness. Forced to flee Afghanistan last year after claims that he brutalised a political rival, General Dostum is – to the horror of Western diplomats – now emerging as a key player who could be instrumental in delivering an election victory for the President.

Best known for allegedly overseeing a massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners following the US-led invasion in 2001, General Dostum controlled large swaths of northern Afghanistan for years. He remains the de facto leader of the country's ethnic Uzbeks and his return is likely to consolidate their vote behind Mr Karzai. But the warlord's triumphant return from Turkey on Sunday has exposed Mr Karzai to renewed accusations that even if he wins the election he will remain in hock to thugs and human rights abusers.

At least 204 British troops have died trying to defend Afghanistan's government from the threat of the Taliban, but Western diplomats fear the patchwork of alleged war criminals in a future administration will make it nigh on impossible for Nato troops to garner support for the Kabul government.

President Karzai, who has made a series of backroom deals with unsavoury mujahedin leaders to secure the votes they control, gave General Dostum carte blanche to return last week, in exchange for his support. General Dostum is said to have once strapped a soldier accused of theft to the tracks of a tank and driven him around until the man's body was reduced to shreds.

The US embassy issued a statement expressing "serious concerns" about General Dostum's role in today's Afghanistan. President Barack Obama last month warned that the US may investigate the massacre of the Taliban prisoners, locked in sea containers and baked in the desert, in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2001 which is blamed on the warlord.

Opinion polls are still putting President Karzai in front with around 45 per cent of the vote, but unless he wins 51 per cent in the first round, there will be a run-off with his closest challenger, likely to be his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Mr Karzai's chief critic over human rights abuses is the third-placed candidate, Ramazan Bashar Dost. The French-educated philosopher said: "It is time for the international community to see that it is not acceptable that war criminals stay in power."

Voter turnout in the Pashtun south and east of the country will be critical in deciding the outcome of Thursday's poll. In 2004, President Karzai swept to power with 80 per cent of the Pashtun vote. In places like Helmand and Kandahar, he claimed up to 90 per cent. But it is here, where the Taliban now hold sway, that the new threats of intimidation might be most effective.

And even among those who do turn out to vote, Mr Karzai is unlikely to enjoy such strong support now. "In the rural areas people won't be able to vote at all," said Naqib, a 26-year-old working for a Western company in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. "In Lashkar Gah it's safer. Most people will vote for Karzai."

Even Kabul is not immune from Taliban violence. On Saturday a suicide bomber killed seven people and injured more than 90, outside Nato's headquarters in the city.

The question of how long British troops will have to remain in Afghanistan remains contentious meanwhile, after the next head of the Army, General Sir David Richards denied yesterday that there was a split with Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth. General Richards stressed that when he had stated that the UK may be involved in Afghanistan for up to 40 years he was talking about the time international help was needed, and not the duration of British military presence.

But last night the current head of the Army demanded more equipment to tackle the home-made bombs which have proved deadly in Afghanistan. General Sir Richard Dannatt said countering improvised explosive devices was a "major tactical battle that we have got to win" and called for increased levels of surveillance to locate the bombs and the insurgents laying them. He added that any increase in the amount of troops would have to be matched by more kit to ensure they are appropriately equipped.

Ninety-four members of the British forces were wounded in action in Afghanistan last month – just over double the number of casualties in June.

Mr Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, enjoys strong support in the north, where security is better and voter turnout is likely to be much higher. Low turnout in the south could help him to victory, or force Mr Karzai into a second-round run-off, if he fails to get the crucial 51 per cent.

The President's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, announced last week that he had brokered a series of local ceasefires across the south to let people vote.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions