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Afghanistan: Biography of Abdul Rashid Dostum

By Andy Heil

Abdul Rashid Dostum was appointed on 1 March chief of staff to the head of the Afghan armed forces, President Hamid Karzai.

Dostum (b. 1954) is a powerful northern warlord who controls large swathes of northern Afghanistan and has chafed at central authority out of the Afghan capital Kabul.

Dostum served as a controversial security adviser to Hamid Karzai within the Afghan Transitional Administration.

An ethnic Uzbek, Dostum placed fourth among the 18 candidates for president in the October election -- behind Hamid Karzai (55 percent), Mohammad Yunos Qanuni (16 percent), and Mohammad Mohaqeq (12 percent).

He ran as an independent in the presidential race but heads the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish-e Milli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan) party. Dostum campaigned for president on pledges to boost national sovereignty, implement disarmament, battle security threats, and fight the illegal drug trade. He voiced support for the international and ISAF missions in Afghanistan to foster stability and security. In domestic policy, he has vowed to increase the representative nature of government, enact administrative reform, and improve tax collection.
Dostum reappeared to back the U.S.-led attacks to oust the Taliban regime in 2001, returning to the area to reclaim control of large swathes of northern Afghanistan.

Dostum's campaign in many ways focused on the hardships facing the average Afghan. His first vice-presidential running mate, Shafiqa Habibi, vowed that a Dostum presidency would target poverty and joblessness as priorities. Elements of xenophobia crept into the Dostum effort as well, with Habibi decrying the existence of "thousands of foreign workers" as Afghans remained unemployed.

Checkered Past

The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) had received more than 50 complaints or legal challenges to Dostum's candidacy by early August based on accusations of criminal or other misconduct that included alleged violent crimes, according to JEMB Chairman Zakem Shah. Dostum has been the subject of a UN investigation of suspected human rights abuses, and some have alleged his participation in war crimes. He has denied such allegations.

Dostum has forged many short-lived alliances during his two-decade career as a militia leader. Dostum was a laborer who rose to become a union boss in the oil and gas sector, including a trip to the Soviet Union for training in 1980. But soon he had gathered tens of thousands of men to form the largely ethnic Uzbek "Dostum Militia," which he commanded to back the communist government in Kabul and repel U.S.- and Pakistani-backed mujahedin forces in the 1980s. Dostum was also on the executive council of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

Dostum then turned against communist President Najibullah toward the end of the latter's rule in 1992 -- three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was in this period that Dostum and other mainly Uzbek military officers formed the National Islamic Movement (Junbesh-e Milli Islami) party, based in Mazar-e Sharif. Dostum soon allied himself with mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud. Dostum's forces fought with Mas'ud's men to capture Kabul, allowing Dostum to join briefly President Burhanuddin Rabbani's mujahedin government.

After he perceived as a snub President Rabbani's failure to offer him a cabinet seat, Dostum's forces joined briefly with Islamist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to lay siege to the mujahedin government in Kabul.

The Taliban's ascension proved too powerful for Dostum, however, thanks in part to his onetime "foreign minister" and later rival, Abdul Malik. Dostum was ousted from his Mazar-e Sharif stronghold and his surrounding mini-state in 1997, and eventually forced to flee to Uzbekistan, Iran, then Turkey.

Dostum reappeared to back the U.S.-led attacks to oust the Taliban regime in 2001, returning to the area to reclaim control of large swathes of northern Afghanistan.

Dostum's National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan controlled a number of northern provinces before the Taliban came to power -- including most of the Balkh, Faryab, Jowzjan, and Samangan provinces -- and this is where his power base lies. Since his appointment as a special envoy and military official by Chairman Karzai's administration, Dostum has sought to reestablish control over a swathe of northern Afghanistan that includes roughly 5 million people. His rule in the region has been generally regarded as socially liberal but brutal in its treatment of opposition. His loyalists have engaged in numerous clashes in the past year with a longtime military rival, ethnic Tajik and former mujahedin commander Balkh Province Governor Ata Mohammad Nuri.

(Sources: JEMB; RFE/RL OnLine; Radio Free Afghanistan; Ludwig W. Adamec, "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan"; Martin Ewans, "Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics"; and as noted.)