In a sign of mounting political fever in Afghanistan, a new coalition of strongmen, all current senior government officials, have called on President Ashraf Ghani to allow Vice President Rashid Dostum to return from Turkey.
"We ask for the unconditional return of the first vice president to Afghanistan and for him to resume office," Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of northern Balkh Province, told a demonstration in the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, on August 1.
Dostum moved to Turkey in May for medical treatment. But in the preceding months he faced political isolation amid accusations he ordered a political rival to be tortured and sexually abused.
He denies any wrongdoing but has so far been unable to return home. Afghan and international media reports suggest Dostum failed to return to Mazar-e Sharif last month when the plane carrying him was not allowed to land.
The controversy over Dostum's fate is now plaguing Ghani’s national unity government, which comprises an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with his former election rival and now chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah.
Noor, a senior leader of the Jamiat-e Islami party, warned the government that without quick reforms it will collapse.
“Our coalition will strive to bring the government to the right path. We want to tell the senior officials to implement justice,” he told supporters. “Unless the monopoly of four or five people over power ends, we are unlikely to see the current political system stabilize in the coming year.”
Last month, Noor joined longtime rival Dostum and government Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq to form the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan.
Noor’s Jamiat-e Islami mainly attracts members from among his fellow Tajiks. Dostum’s National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan is popular among his fellow Uzbeks while Mohaqiq’s People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan claims to represent the mainly Shi'ite Hazaras.
"I ask the international community, the United States, and Europe: If General Dostum is a bad man, why was he good before the election?" Mohaqiq asked. "Why was he accepted as the first vice president if you oppose him now?"
Presidential spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazawi said most of the coalition’s demands are aimed at protecting the personal interests of its leaders rather than promoting national interests.
"There is no political or legal logic to form opposition coalitions within the government,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “If these leaders have any alternative plans [for governance], they should share them."
Former communist general Dostum joined former World Bank technocrat Ghani before the 2014 election to boost his prospects by attracting a large number of votes from among his fellow Uzbeks. The minority group is thought to comprise some 10 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated population of 30 million.
But once in office Dostum frequently clashed with Ghani, a Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan. He also faced criticism from rights campaigners and Western diplomats who called for his accountability to show that even senior government leaders no longer enjoyed unbridled impunity.
The controversy over Dostum’s fate has now assumed ethnic undertones, with some members of the new coalition claiming to represent the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek minorities accusing Ghani of favoring his fellow Pashtuns -- Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
With reporting from Reuters and Radio Free Afghanistan