Confident, swaggering, but with an air of jovial menace, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the burly Uzbek warlord who has just conquered much of northern Afghanistan, was this week explaining how his men had come to kill hundreds of Taliban captives during a prison uprising.
The slaughter, inside the ancient fortress of Qalai Janghi, whose blue-domed citadel long served as General Dostum's headquarters, has made Afghans nervous. It is not that many feel sympathy for the Taliban. But, as one observer in Kabul, quoting an old Afghan proverb, put it: "What you do to your enemies today, you will do to your friends tomorrow."
And General Dostum's friends and enemies have tended to switch places with bewildering rapidity, even by Afghan standards. Once the commander of a Communist armoured corps in northern Afghanistan he has, at one time or another, been allied to, and has betrayed, every other Afghan leader and political movement including the Taliban.
In his defence, it could be said that he generally only betrayed his friends before they betrayed him and sometimes they were quicker than he was. Twice he was forced to flee Mazar-i-Sharif, his capital, which he has now recaptured. Once, in 1997, he was compelled to bribe his own soldiers to let him escape into Uzbekistan.
But it is not the treachery which is surprising. It is rather that Dostum, the son of poor Uzbek peasants, once a farm hand and a plumber, has been able to survive defeat so often. In 1992 it was his defection, at the head of his private army, from the Communist government, which doomed the regime and ensured his survival.
Now, once again, the general is in a key position. Discussions of power-sharing between Afghan parties in Bonn this week will be an exercise in fantasy if they disregard men like Dostum, who, however unsavoury, have real armed forces at their disposal.
It is easy enough to demonise the general. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani writer and journalist, once noticed, on visiting him in his headquarters in the Qalai Janghi fortress – the name means Fort of War – outside Mazar, that there were smears of blood and pieces of flesh in one corner of the courtyard. At first he thought a goat must have been killed. Guards explained that, an hour earlier, Dostum had ordered a soldier accused of stealing to be tied to the tracks of a tank that drove around until he was reduced to mincemeat.
But as ruler of a quasi-independent state, made up of seven Afghan provinces in the plains north of the Hindu Kush mountains, the general gained a reputation for effective administration. His private kingdom had a health and medical service. It was also, whatever bows Dostum made towards Islam, largely secular. Some 1,800 women attended university in Mazar at a time when they were banned from work and education by the Taliban in Kabul.
In the elaborate and ruthless chess game of Afghan politics, Dostum has few equals. Born in 1954 or 1955 (accounts differ), he was the son of poor Uzbek peasants in the village of Khwaja Dokoh in the Jozjan province, a major producer of oil and natural gas, all exported to the Soviet Union. He worked for the Oil and Gas Exploration Enterprise and, in 1980, a year after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, went to the Soviet Union for training. He then joined the Ministry of State Security and became commander of unit 374 in Jozjan.
It was control of his own ferocious army of Uzbeks which made him a political power in the final years of Communist power in Afghanistan. Known as the Jozjani, they numbered 20,000 men by 1992 and were used as a military fire brigade as revolts flared across the country. The most common nickname for his men among Afghans was Galamjam or "carpet thieves".
Ruthlessness, military ability and the backing of one, at least, of Afghanistan's ethnic groups are not the only qualities necessary to make a successful warlord. He must also have the support of a foreign power. The speed of the collapse of the Taliban shows not only the power of the United States airforce, but the movement's dependence on military and financial support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
As a soldier, Dostum had looked first to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. With the end of Soviet aid in 1991 he received help from Uzbekistan which had a deep interest in what happened in the flat agricultural lands between the Amu Darya river and the Hindu Kush mountains. He was later to diversify his range of potential international supporters by visiting Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but his mini-state and its secular traditions most closely resembled the old Communist Afghanistan. Despite his frequent and opportunistic changes of allegiance, Islamic fundamentalists still saw him as a long-term enemy.
It was the defection of General Dostum in 1992 which brought down the Communist government. He allied himself with Ahmed Shah Masood, the Tajik leader, and together they took Kabul. But, despite his obvious military strength, the leaders and parties who had been part of the anti-Communist resistance excluded Dostum from the new government.
Today, the ruins of Kabul are a monument – and this may be a bad omen – to the inability of Afghan leaders to agree. Whole quarters of the city are devastated. Buildings have their floors collapsed one on top of another like concrete sandwiches, showing the contempt of all Afghan leaders for the civilians who once lived in them.
Dostum was no better than others. In 1994, he tried and failed to seize the centre of Kabul from Masood. In the next two months, 4,000 civilians were killed, 21,000 wounded and 200,000 made homeless by the bombardment. The horrors of this time are recalled vividly by people in the capital. "We dislike him not because he was a Communist but because of the number of people he killed in 1994," said one.
At first Dostum, egged on by Pakistan, flirted with the Taliban. He probably under-estimated their potential strength even after they took Kabul in 1996. He had a uniformed army, variously estimated to number between 25,000 and 40,000 men under experienced officers, modern T-62 and T-72 tanks supplied by Russia and Uzbekistan, as well as an airforce with 28 jets. He developed his own personality cult with numerous billboards portraying the moustachioed figure of their leader.
It was a deceptive appearance. Behind every treacherous Afghan warlord stands an equally treacherous deputy. Power is fragmented. At ground level it is held by local commanders who, like medieval knights, want, above all, to emerge on the winning side and keep their fiefdoms. Their loyalty is temporary and conditional. And the events surrounding the defeat of General Dostum in northern Afghanistan in 1997 resemble one of Shakespeare's gorier history plays. Everybody double-crossed each other, leading to some of the bloodiest massacres in Afghanistan's prolonged civil war. First, one of General Dostum's senior commanders, Abdul Malik Pehlawan, mutinied and defected to the Taliban. He claimed he did so to revenge the murder of his brother by Dostum, but his close contact with Pakistani intelligence suggests his treachery was simply a grab for power.
Dostum was forced to flee to the border with Uzbekistan and cross over the so-called "Friendship Bridge", leaving his vehicles and much of his money. Behind him he left anarchy. The Taliban marched into a terrified city. Within three days, their brutal fundamentalism provoked an uprising. Malik switched sides again. Several thousand Taliban were killed or captured and later murdered.
After taking refuge in Turkey, Dostum returned a few months later. But the anti-Taliban opposition was unable to unite. Mazar fell for a second time. The Taliban took a hideous vengeance on their enemies. Dostum was wounded by a shell fragment and was treated in a hospital in Tashkent. Three years ago, he was forced to flee in to exile a second time as the Taliban took over the territory he once ruled.
Earlier this year, General Dostum returned to the mountain stronghold to the south of Mazar which the Taliban had never penetrated. It was not a very hopeful venture. Dostum was a member of the Northern Alliance, which prefers to be called the United Front, and the only thing holding its members together was that they had all had been defeated by the Taliban and belonged to the non-Pashtun minorities.
Yet this forlorn hope in the mountains of central Afghanistan succeeded beyond all expectation. After 11 September, the US needed anti-Taliban allies on the ground in Afghanistan. Its efforts to pick and choose came to naught. Bombing alone could not destroy the Taliban. Somebody had to occupy the ground. Surprisingly, the first to move, sometimes riding a white horse, was the general.
Dostum, along with other opposition leaders, advanced on Mazar in three columns, initially without co-ordination, and fell back in confusion. It was only a temporary setback. Just as Dostum's army had dissolved in the face of superior force three years before, so the Taliban now fell apart. He was able to recapture his old headquarters at Qalai Janghi where last weekend's fearful massacre took place.
It's not clear what exactly happened in the prisoners' revolt. But, ironically, even if the general was not directly responsible for the massacre that followed, his reputation for ruthlessness and the fear he inspired may well have encouraged the prisoners to revolt in the first place. On past record, troops fighting with the Taliban had little to expect from the man, whatever his promises to the Americans.
What will Dostum's role be in a post-Taliban Afghanistan? The Northern Alliance is over-stretched. The next phase may well belong to the Pashtun. Any attempt to by-pass warlords such as Dostum will inevitably fail, however. The Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic community, is not homogenous. Politically, the Northern Alliance is still the only game in town.
Men like General Dostum will inevitably provide the new leadership because warlordism has gone on too long to be swiftly eradicated. But he, and other warlords, have shown little interest in running the country as a whole. Provided he is left alone to run his own area in his own way, he will prove no obstacle to the efforts at nation building going on in Bonn. But should the West wish to build a centralised state in their own image, there will be trouble.
Born: Abdul Rashid Dostum, 1954 or 1955, in Khwaja Dokoh, Afghanistan.
Parents: Uzbek peasants.
Non-military career: Oil and Gas Exploration Enterprise, until 1980.
Military career: Leader of the Jozjani Dostum Militia, 20,000 pro-Soviet Uzbek soldiers, 1980-1992.
Political career: Joined pro-Soviet government of President Najibullah in 1980s; joined mujahedin government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, 1992; brief alliance with Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, 1992; set up "mini-state" in six northern provinces of Afghanistan, 1993-97; fled to Turkey, 1998; returned to fight with Ahmed Shah Masood against the Taliban, April 2001.
Nickname: "Pasha" (title for region's ancient kings); "The new Tamerlane" (Uzbek horseman who conquered Afghanistan in the 14th century).
Honours: "Hero of the Republic of Afghanistan" medal, awarded by President Najibullah.
Hobbies: Started airline Balkh Air (with two British-made jets that fly to central Asia and the Persian Gulf).
He says: "See that mountain – the one with the snow on it? Well I captured it three days ago."
"We will not submit to a government where there is no whisky and no music."
They say: "I think that he is a good leader because people here can live as they want to" – Latifa Hamidi, student at Balkh University (which is financed by Dostum); "We're not going to accept anybody as big brother" – Abdul Wahid, rival military commander, on Dostum.
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