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Afghanistan: General Dostum's Return Raises Questions

Prague, 16 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- General Abdul Rashid Dostum is reported back in Afghanistan and he's apparently planning to play an important political role in his country once again.

Rumors began circulating last week that Dostum, a key figure in Afghanistan in recent years, was returning from Turkey. He had fled there after an apparent mutiny by one his commanders, Abdul Malik, last May forced him out of his stronghold in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

On Saturday an official from the Iranian Foreign Ministry said the return of Dostum to his homeland will "strengthen the battle against the enemies of the people, and bring the country out of chaos." But Dostum's return in fact makes events in Afghanistan more complicated -- and bringing Afghanistan out of chaos has long proved elusive.

At the beginning of last May, Dostum was one of two leading commanders in the coalition of forces facing the fundamentalist Taliban movement which controls two-thirds of Afghanistan. The "anti-Taliban coalition" has just that much in common: all its forces oppose the "religious students" who make up the Taliban. Dostum's forces are mainly ethnic Uzbeks, like the general himself. The other leading commander of the coalition is Ahmed Shah Masoud, whose force is mainly ethnic Tajiks, also like Masoud.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Dostum was on the Soviet side. Masoud by contrast became known as the "Lion of Panshir" for fighting against those Soviet forces from his lair in the Panshir Valley, north of Kabul. Dostum and Masoud cooperated on occasions after the Soviets left in 1989, but more often have been at odds with one another. An opportunity for renewed cooperation arose nearly one year ago when the Taliban seized Kabul. Ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani fled Kabul with Masoud, his leading commander. Previous to the Taliban's arrival, Kabul had been attacked more than once by the forces of General Dostum.

The situation then changed, with nearly all elements opposing the Taliban and joining to attack the common enemy. The war continued but was at an impasse. Ground was gained in one area but lost in another. After eight months the front lines were essentially the same as they had been one month after the fall of Kabul.

But opportunity arose for the Taliban when a mutiny broke out in Dostum's ranks in his capital of Mazar-i-Sharif. One of Dostum's field commanders, Abdul Malik, rebelled, claiming Dostum had ordered the assassination of Malik's relative. Dostum was forced to flee through neighboring Uzbekistan and departed almost immediately for Ankara, Turkey, where until last week he remained. Malik invited the Taliban into Mazar-i-Sharif and most reports state that when the Taliban attempted to disarm Malik's troops, the latter attacked. In the process thousands of Taliban soldiers may have been killed and as many captured. The front lines soon returned to where they had been for months but now Malik was a leading commander in the coalition.

Early last week, reports showed the Taliban were launching an offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban say Malik ordered eight of his planes to Tajikistan so as not to fall into Taliban hands, but the pilots of three of the planes defected to the Taliban with their aircraft.

Taliban forces briefly captured the airport outside Mazar-i-Sharif before being beaten back. But reports last Friday continued to speak of fighting inside the city even as the Taliban were in retreat. It was at this time rumors spread that Dostum was in neighboring Uzbekistan or possibly already inside Afghanistan. By Saturday night Dostum was reported in Mazar-i-Sharif. According to AP, Dostum visited a Muslim shrine where people threw money at his feet. ITAR-TASS reported yesterday that Malik was in the city of Shirbagan.

Dostum's return after four months raises questions. How did he get there? Though Iran was among the first to know Dostum had arrived in Afghanistan, it is doubtful he entered via Iran. The Taliban control the Afghan territory along the Iranian border and so there is no direct route to Mazar-i-Sharif by land. It would also assume cooperation between Turkey and Iran in bringing Dostum back. Not impossible but unlikely. The rumor the general returned via Uzbekistan is more credible. Dostum received at least the electricity used in the Mazar-i-Sharif area from Uzbekistan during last few years he has governed there.

The Taliban has been accusing various countries in the region of aiding the anti-Taliban coalition. Lately it has been Tajikistan, and that too is the result of events in Mazar-i-Sharif and the planes reportedly flown there. Russia has been named and Iran. Dostum's return through Uzbekistan, if indeed that was his route, may not constitute great aid to anti-Taliban coalition forces but it certainly would not be in keeping with Uzbekistan's professed neutrality in the affairs of Afghanistan.

Which brings up another question posed by the general's reappearance on the Afghan political scene. The United Nations for some time has been trying to hold a conference on Afghanistan with all Afghan factions for negotiations aimed at forming a coalition government. If a conference could be held, who will represent the various Afghan factions?. And given the recent events in the Mazar-i-Sharif area, can anyone expect that a coalition government from the combatant groups would be durable?