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Author Says Dostum Is Not A Blood-thirsty Warlord

Abdul Rahid Dostum
Abdul Rahid Dostum

If presidential contender Ashraf Ghani wins the election recount under way in Afghanistan, his running mate General Abdul Rashid Dostum will be the country’s next vice president. A highly controversial warlord, Dostum could be an unexpected ally of the United States, according to Brian Glyn Williams, Islamic history professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of "The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum."

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Mustafa Sarwar, Williams explained why he believes Dostum is misunderstood.

RFE/RL: General Dostum has been accused of involvement in grave human rights abuses and is often labelled the most brutal Afghan warlord. Having spent time with the general and written extensively about him, is this a fair characterization in your view?

Brian Glyn Williams: Perhaps the greatest charge against General Dostum is that he participated in a massacre of Taliban prisoners being transported from the northeastern Afghan town of Kunduz to Sheberghan back in November 2001. I went through several pieces of research on this issue and found out this had really been exaggerated. There were perhaps 100 Taliban prisoners who died, many of whom were suffering from wounds as a result of U.S. bombings, though some did suffocate [while being transported], but I have seen figures of four, five, or six thousand prisoner deaths, and I think it’s tremendously exaggerated.

I think this is one of the great myths of the war on terror. Western journalists who were with Dostum at the time of these events, such as Robert Young Pelton of National Geographic, explicitly state that Dostum gave his troops orders to protect these prisoners of war who surrendered in Kunduz.

On a personal level, in the two summers I spent with Dostum, I found him to be greatly bothered by the deaths of his prisoners. I found out that he is someone who seemed to be wanting peace with the local Pashtuns of northern [Afghanistan]. My personal experience would seem to contradict these inflated rumors of him being some sort of ogre -- some sort of blood-thirsty warlord who seems to take pleasure in killing other people.

Brian Glyn Williams
Brian Glyn Williams

RFE/RL: On the other hand, is he really the most progressive liberal leader in Afghanistan, as you've depicted him in one of your articles entitled "Dostum the Taliban Killer: Afghanistan's Pro-American Warlord"?

Williams: I certainly think he was big in the past. Don’t forget that he fought in the 1980s for the communists. He was a member of the Parcham faction [of the Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan], which was more moderate. He told me personally that one of the things that drove him was his interest in liberalism and secularism and in increasing rights for women in the country.

His record indicates that back when many leaders were fighting for jihad, people like Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, whose followers said to throw acid in the face of unveiled women. Dostum was fighting against the likes of Hikmatyar down in the south and east [of Afghanistan] and fighting for many of the values that we today are fighting for in Afghanistan. Is he more progressive than someone, let's say, like Abdullah Abdullah? Probably not, based on the fact that he is a warlord. But as far as the warlords go, he certainly has a track record of being on the side of moderation and secularism as oppose to jihad.

RFE/RL: How are Dostum’s interests aligned with those of the U.S. in Afghanistan?

Williams: Some of it, quite frankly, is his ethno-opportunism. He is an opportunist and he does do things that are best for him and his faction, the Junbish-e Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan, [which has a following among Afghan] Uzbeks and Turkmen.

This is a man who is not a jihadist warrior. He is not trying to enforce Shari'a Law. He’s always been a secularist. He named his son Mustafa Kamal after Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Republic of Turkey. So based on these principles that we share in America and that Dostum has shared for the last few decades, I think his nationalism aligns with us against his enemies, the Taliban.

RFE/RL: Dostum has been a great survivor in Afghanistan. Under the communist regime in the 1980s he gained prominence and went on to survive the fratricidal mujahedin civil war in the 1990s to emerge as a key powerbroker during the Karzai presidency. What is the key to his success?

Williams: He is very charismatic. He has tremendous clout among his followers. He is a man who leads his troops from the front. I found him larger than life--very dynamic and full of confidence. His Qawm (tribe), the Uzbeks in the north, really supports and adores him. They call him Pasha and Baba, or father, and this has given him an ethnic constituency -- a community that has consistently supported him over decades. He always seems to maneuver and get himself on the right side. He has this phoenix like ability to reinvent himself.

RFE/RL: Some say Dostum has not been loyal to anyone. He betrayed the last socialist President, Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, and fought on the side of mujahedin leaders and Karzai. Will he be loyal to Ashraf Ghani?

Williams: In actuality, it was Najibullah who first turned against Dostum. I recall well, in the spring of 1992 the mujahedin were marching [towards Kabul], the Soviets were pulled out of Afghanistan and Najibullah decided to disarm Dostum and his troops and perhaps potentially arrest Dostum in order to make amends with Hikmatyar, a fellow Pashtun in the mujahedin. So I think the story of betrayal has been sort of exaggerated.

As of today, I think Dostum certainly will be very loyal to Ghani. Based on my own interviews with people in his Junbish party and with Western journalists who have been there, he seems to have a deep personal admiration for Ghani. He appreciates what Ghani stands for. Ghani gives Dostum a chance to vocalize his ethnic group's grievances and to be a player in the new Afghanistan that will emerge after the withdrawal of the Americans.

RFE/RL: Are the two men compatible?

Williams: Well, that’s a fascinating question. I think of Ghani as more of western technocrat, a fluent English speaker, someone who’s polished and who has lived in the U.S. and the West. He is an intellectual. Whereas Dostum left school in seventh grade. He isn't a man of literature. He does not speak English. He is not calling himself an intellectual; he is a jangsalar, a quintessential warlord.

So in that sense, it's a strange marriage. I certainly sense that there might be some sort of tensions based on the two men’s completely different backgrounds. But I have come to sense that they have a strong appreciation of the fact that they are so different. In some ways this may allow them to reach out to different communities.

RFE/RL: What do you know about Dostum that most Afghans don’t?

Williams: Well, I learned that his wife died a tragic [accidental] death in the mid-1990s, and I have been told he really loved his wife, Khadija. This was a real blow to him. She'd been a sort of companion to him in many ways. She was a teacher and educator and she helped him learn to appreciate the role for women in Afghan society. She had a tremendous role in his life as a young man. When she died, apparently it really broke Dostum. He eventually remarried because elders of his community insisted he should remarry. But I have been told that his one true love was Khadija, the mother of his first three children.