There is no one as colourful and controversial among the warlords of Afghanistan as General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a man of immense power and huge wealth whose name became synonymous with bloodshed and betrayal during the long years of conflict.
General Dostum, who once ruled a northern swath of the country with an iron fist is now under siege, with an arrest warrant against him and stripped of his post as chief of staff to the army commander.
A police attempt to arrest the warlord at his home in Kabul's diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan ended in a stand-off with his bodyguards, armed with rocket-propelled grenades. But police freed four men being held hostage, among them Akbar Bai, a close ally of General Dostum before they fell out, and his son. They are in hospital with "serious injuries" including "internal damage".
Mr Bai, a leader of the country's Turkmen community, had accused General Dostum of a range of crimes, including plotting to lead an insurrection and the murder of opponents in the Turkmen community. The general and 70 of his men had seized him from his house in the same part of Kabul and, it is alleged, subjected him and his son to hours of torture.
After widespread public consternation over the incident, General Dostum said he would be willing to settle the matter through community elders, and he would ask President Hamid Karzai to intervene if legal proceedings are started against him. "What they are saying against me is wrong and designed to create instability in Afghanistan," he said. "The people who are saying this have hidden motives and they should be warned that this will have bad consequences."
But Mr Bai has made a formal complaint, saying the general "has committed a crime and must be punished if there is law and democracy in this country. This is on top of many other crimes he has committed".
The Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabat, who is said to have presidential ambitions and likes to portray himself standing up to strongmen, declared: "The case is that someone enters someone else's house in the middle of Kabul city 500 metres from the presidential palace, beats the people in that house, kidnaps them and abuses them. If the law is not implemented against such a person, it means there is no law at all. If General Dostum knew there was the certainty of the law being implemented, he would not dare to have done it."
President Karzai said: "This culture of impunity has to stop. I can live with undue influence, because it is part of this arrangement we have. But we cannot tolerate and protect criminals, or the whole arrangement will lose its moral existence. We are running out of options."
General Dostum is now in his base at Shibirghan in the north, where his private army is being rearmed, and supporters hold daily demonstrations threatening an uprising unless the arrest warrant against him is revoked and his official powers are restored. The Uzbek, physically a big, bear-like man, is said to be feeling isolated. Increasingly, to the worry of his staff, he is drinking vodka heavily.
But his remarkable ability to survive and bounce back from reverses cannot be underestimated. The man who started as a farm labourer and styled himself the "new Tamerlane", had in his time managed to switch sides repeatedly between the Russians, Afghan- istan's communist government, the Mujahedin, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Masud and the Americans, successfully playing off one against the other.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghan strongman
* General Dostum is accused of responsibility for the worst atrocity in the 2001 war on the Taliban, when an estimated 400 Taliban prisoners suffocated in containers on their way to Shibirgan prison run by the warlord in northern Afghanistan.
* The journalist Ahmed Rashid noticed pieces of flesh on the ground during a visit to General Dostum's headquarters near Mazar-i-Sharif. Rashid asked a guard whether a goat had just been slaughtered for a meal, and was told that the remains were, in fact, those of a soldier who had been caught stealing. General Dostum had ordered him to be tied to the tracks of a tank which then drove around the courtyard shredding the body.
* General Dostum also reportedly said: "I am dying of these accusations from the international community. 'What is happening in Mazar with these mass killing? Why are you so cruel?' ... If any one of my commanders commits these kinds of acts, I will kill him tomorrow."
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