Taliban zealots face might of Uzbek warlord

Battle for Kabul: Dostam's decision to join attack on fundamentalists may seal the city's fate
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General Abdul Rashid Dostam's headquarters are in a mud bunker, deep below ground. He directs operations from the map room, where the long table is covered with maps of Afghanistan and the walls are papered with military plans, hidden behind pink curtains.

In the past, Gen Dostam received his soldiers in the map room. Now, guests are more likely to be diplomats, politicians and his business partners from all over the world. On Tuesday he agreed to head an alliance of forces opposed to the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist army which controls more half of the country and last month took control of the capital, Kabul. Overnight the shifting fronts of the Afghan civil war simplified. It is now the Taliban on one side and everybody else on the other. Yesterday villagers fled heavy fighting north of Kabul as Gen Dostam's forces and the ousted government army, led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, mounted a new attack on Taliban positions.

It has been a remarkable transformation. The man who was once best known as a brutal warlord has become an astute statesman and is recognised by the United Nations as one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan.

Gen Dostam, who controls a well-trained and well-equipped private army, once supported Afghanistan's Soviet-backed regime. Now he is a free agent and knows that whichever side he supports is likely to gain the upper hand in the civil war.

Gen Dostam, who left school at 14, is described as "cunning and streetwise" by Western diplomats. He revels in Machiavellian power-games.

He decided to join the war against the Taliban after ceasefire talks broke down. He had asked the Taliban to leave Kabul; they refused. Now he and Mr Massoud have vowed to force them out.

Gen Dostam is not with his troops, however. He remains in his stronghold, a nineteenth- century fortress called the Fort of War,with walls 30 foot thick, in Mazar-i-Sharif, the city he controls in north Afghanistan.

He runs his corner of the country as a fieldom. He has set up an alternative government and never defers to Kabul. He is protected by a well-trained private army of former Communist soldiers and has the biggest and best- equipped air-force in the country.

Gen Dostam's photograph hangs everywhere in shops and restaurants. He sometimes strolls through town, his unmistakeable bear-like figure dressed in a military uniform, with a khaki flat cap and thick, handlebar moustache. When he drives around his region everybody knows he is coming. His black Cadillac is always followed by an armed convoy including an anti-aircraft gun.

His army has a fierce reputation. According to legend, Risool Palawan, his former deputy, once drove up to a checkpoint, made the soldiers manning it salute him, then shot three of them before driving away. But, despite his military reputation, Gen Dostam is considered a liberal ruler. Mazar- i-Sharif is a thriving city compared to Kabul, where the Taliban have banned women from working and girls from going to school. In Mazar most Western goods are available and women only wear veils if they choose too. The city has the country's only university still open to women.

Gen Dostam is also trying to attract international trade. He recently went to Britain to meet businessmen and entice them to do business with him. One of his ventures was a commercial airline, Balkh Air.

Gen Dostam is also a cunning politician. He is trying to throw off his reputation as a Communist and portray himself as a good Muslim. He recently had a calendar commissioned and distributed around the region. It shows a picture of himself superimposed upon upon a background of Mecca.