General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Afghanistan's most notorious militia commanders, has emerged from exile on the eve of the country's presidential and regional elections, giving a boost to incumbent President Hamid Karzai's reelection chances but angering critics who want him investigated over allegations of human-rights abuses.
Dostum received a hero's welcome from a crowd of some 10,000 as the ethnic Uzbek strongman marked his return to his northern Afghan hometown of Sheberghan after nearly a year abroad.
Dostum announced his return by assuring supporters that he is in Afghanistan to stay. But while that might please his followers, critics cite not only the outstanding allegations of human-rights abuses
committed by Dostum but also Karzai's apparent willingness to stack his team with dubious characters.
Highlighting the sway his followers can have on the country's political scene, Dostum advised them to cast their votes for Karzai in the August 20 poll.
"We are hopeful. We are determined. Playing with General Dostum is playing with a million people," he told a cheering crowd. "Playing with General Dostum is playing with a storm. Playing with General Dostum will be tough and will create anger." Negative Rating
Dostum supporters had earlier said that they would not participate in the elections if he was not allowed to return from Turkey, where Dostum went into exile last year while facing inquiries about violence against a fellow ethnic Uzbek political rival, Akbar Bai.
In a nationwide poll taken in July that gauged the popularity of Afghanistan's leaders, Dostum received the most negative rating. But his ability to deliver his supporters' votes is seen as a boon to Karzai's chances of winning a first-round victory on August 20, which would spare the incumbent a potentially risky run-off.
Polling numbers ahead of the election place Karzai clearly in the lead, with about 45 percent of decided voters saying they will support the incumbent. But 50-percent-plus-one vote is needed for a first-round win, leading Karzai's campaign to scramble to secure votes that can put him over the top.
Dostum's support could be the key to an easy victory. As a candidate in the 2004 presidential election against Karzai, Dostum received approximately 800,000 votes, accounting for 10 percent of the total count.'Establish A Party'
In Shiberghan, Dostum told his supporters that he was looking forward to an even larger political role.
"Inshallah, we will establish a party in Afghanistan that will be bigger and stronger within six years, and this party will be able to respond to your demands, and this is what you and your martyrs deserve," he said.
The 55-year old former communist general repeatedly changed sides during various rounds of the civil war in the mid-1990s, until the Taliban conquest of his northern strongholds forced him into exile in Turkey in 1998.
Dostum returned to Afghanistan and his forces played a key role in bringing down the Taliban regime in late 2001, but were accused of widespread human rights abuses, including massacres of Taliban prisoners.
The allegations recently resurfaced in the Western media as reports suggested that the international community was looking into the possibility of investigating the killings.
His return to Kabul from Turkey on August 16 put the West on notice.
"We have made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concerns about the prospective role of Mr. Dostum in today's Afghanistan," read a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on August 17. "Issues surrounding him become all the more acute with his return to Afghanistan during this [election] period. Among other concerns, his reputed past actions raise questions of his culpability for massive human rights violations."'Very Happy'
But Siamak Heravi, a spokesman for Karzai, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Dostum has very right to return from his "foreign trip" and will even be allowed to take up his ceremonial military post in the president's office.
Hervai suggests that elders from the northern regions had resolved the dispute between Dostum and Bai 10 months ago.
"There is no inquiry pending in this regard. We are very happy that he has now returned to his homeland to fulfill his national duty by participating in the elections," he says. "The president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through a decree restored him to his post and he is free to resume his duties."
Karzai's political opponents, however, cite the incident as a clear sign of Karzai's intention to remain in power at all costs.
"Hamid Karzai's deals with shady individuals in order to remain in power are no secret. However, he must realize that the Afghan people understand his dirty politics and no longer wish to live in fear of these individuals," candidate Ashraf Ghani's presidential campaign said in a new statement.