October 19, 2001
Former plumber is master of betrayal
On the cusp of victory
WASHINGTON - The United States has had to make some unsavoury friends in its battle against Osama bin Laden's terrorist legions, but none more so than General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a cruel and cunning warlord who is fighting for control of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
Even by the hardened standards of Afghanistan, the beefy former plumber and field hand stands out as by far the ablest practitioner of the double cross. Perhaps it helps that Gen. Dostum is a player of the traditional Uzbek sport of buzkashi, in which men on horseback struggle for the bloody corpse of a headless goat -- a game played without teams and rules.
With his bristling moustache and his stiffly pressed Soviet-style camouflage uniforms, Gen. Dostum reigned for years from Mazar, where he and his 50,000 ethnic Uzbek troops created a state within a state, surviving on smuggling, drug exports and war before the Taliban ousted him.
When reporter Ahmed Rashid visited Gen. Dostum's medieval fortress, the Quila-e-Jhangi, the Fort of War, just outside Mazar, he found pools of blood and flesh in the dusty courtyard. Inquiring whether a goat had been slaughtered, he was told the general had just finished punishing a soldier accused of theft. The man had been tied to a tank and crushed to a pulp under its steel treads.
Another favourite punishment was ripping a victim in two by strapping him to tanks headed in opposite directions.
While he ruled his troops with a bloody hand, the general had a lighter touch with the civilian population of Mazar, a city of about a million on the rolling steppes of northern Afghanistan and the country's gateway to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
A carpet dealer who visited the city recalled few roadblocks and a relatively uncorrupt military. While the Taliban was imposing its misogynistic religious fanaticism on the rest of Afghanistan, Mazar was an oasis of secular normalcy.
Mazar had a Dostum-funded university with many female students, and women worked throughout the civil service as teachers and doctors.
Even during the Soviet invasion, when the Soviets would unhesitatingly unleash their power on cities and villages that resisted them, Mazar was not the scene of much destruction.
Gen. Dostum retained control by maintaining an intricate balance of alliance and deceit with the array of powers vying for control over Afghanistan.
The general began his scramble to power as a Communist union boss and later the leader of a crack ethnic Uzbek militia that backed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and protected vital Soviet supply lines north of Mazar.
After the Soviets left in 1989, leaving a puppet Communist regime behind, Gen. Dostum headed the fearsome Uzbek militia called Jowzjan, which was used by the Communist leader Najibullah as his elite strike force against mujahedeen guerrillas. Gen. Dostum was even awarded the Hero of the Republic of Afghanistan medal.
In 1992, he abandoned Najibullah and sided with the mujahedeen, who took control of Kabul, the capital. The hard-drinking general then switched sides again, abandoning the newly formed government and siding with hardline Islamic leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, helping him to rocket Kabul and kill thousands of civilians.
Over the ensuing years, Gen. Dostum made and broke alliances with renowned guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, with Hekmatyar and even with the Taliban.
The general turned against the Taliban when he saw Najibullah, his former boss, castrated and hanged from a tank barrel the day after the militia seized Kabul in 1996.
The General was in turn betrayed by several of his commanders, who suspected him of arranging for the murder of their brother.
In 1997, the commanders, led by General Malik Phalawan, overthrew Gen. Dostum and invited the Taliban into Mazar under a power-sharing agreement. The General and his family fled north to Uzbekistan.
Within two days, thousands of black-turbaned Taliban fighters were in Mazar, smashing television sets, forcing women off the streets and, most worryingly for Gen. Malik, disarming the local population and his troops.
The Taliban fundamentalists -- ethnic Pashtuns in a city where most of the population is Uzbek or Hazara -- made themselves so hated the city rose up in revolt. The militia's Datsun trucks were cut off inside the city's warren of streets and about 1,000 Taliban fighters were massacred.
Gen. Malik captured thousands more, many of whom were executed. One of Gen. Malik's commanders estimated that more than 1,200 Taliban were killed by being packed into steel shipping containers and left to die of heat and suffocation in the desert sun.
Gen. Dostum rushed back from exile in Turkey to repel another Taliban attack in late 1997 but the militia finally recaptured Mazar in August, 1998.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, allowed his forces two days to take revenge on the citizens of Mazar for their betrayal.
Human rights groups reported that thousands of Taliban fighters swarmed through the ancient city, particularly hunting Hazaras, members of the country's minority Shiite Muslim sect. Women and children walking the streets were shot. Hazaras were pulled out of houses and factories and killed. Prisoners in the city jail were told to recite Sunni Muslim prayers. Those who stumbled had their throats cut.
Hundreds of men were herded into shipping containers and driven three hours to Shiberghan. One witness said only three men were left alive by the time one such container was opened.
Since then, Gen. Dostum has been fighting a guerrilla campaign against the Taliban with a hard core of 2,000 soldiers. With U.S. help he hopes to retake his old capital.
After dallying with Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan, with communists, nationalists, rebels and fundamentalists, Gen. Dostum is now friends with the United States.
"I wouldn't put my money on Abdul Rashid Dostum," warned Shireen Hunter, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He is a thoroughly self-interested man."