A vice president being barred from landing in his own country -- it's a scenario that could spark a major political crisis.
That appears to be the case after a private jet carrying Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful former warlord who had been on medical leave in Turkey in recent months, was turned away when it tried to land on July 17 in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
The plane carrying the critic of President Ashraf Ghani was reportedly told to divert its course to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he is facing a court case over allegations he beat up and tortured a political rival.
Instead, the vice president and his entourage landed in neighboring Turkmenistan. He is expected to reenter Afghanistan by land.
Alliance With Key Brokers
During his absence in Turkey, Dostum had announced the formation of a political alliance with key brokers from northern Afghanistan, the ethnic Uzbek leader's traditional power base.
Dostum’s office denied he had tried to enter Afghanistan, saying that a guest of the local governor had been due to land in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh Province, but had gone to Turkmenistan because of "technical issues."
However, hundreds of Dostum’s supporters were waiting for him at the airport.
The NATO-led Resolute Support force, which maintains troops at Mazar-e Sharif's airport under German command, said it had no role in turning the aircraft away:
The unprecedented step is likely to deepen the long-running political crisis in Afghanistan, where Ghani is facing antigovernment protests calling for his resignation and a mutiny by former allies, including Dostum, who last month announced the formation of a new opposition movement.
Ahmad K. Majidyar, an analyst, says the Dostum controversy is the latest indication that Afghanistan's broad political consensus is weakening rapidly and the central government’s legitimacy and power are in "free fall."
"The central government’s move to block the return of Dostum indicates that Kabul fears the potential strength and risks of the new alliance by Dostum and other influential power brokers in northern Afghanistan," he said.
Majidyar says Kabul's insistence that Dostum’s plane should land in the capital, and not in Mazar-e Sharif, shows the government is no longer entirely in charge of northern Afghanistan.
Dostum has been at loggerheads with his own government for months. Since coming into office after the disputed 2014 presidential elections, Dostum has accused Ghani of sidelining him and monopolizing power.
It is widely believed that Ghani put the former Uzbek militia leader on his ticket as first vice president to secure the votes of ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen, who constitute some 10 percent of Afghanistan's population.
Most recently, the two clashed over a criminal investigation into allegations that Dostum and his bodyguards kidnapped, tortured, and sexually assaulted Ahmad Ischi, a former political ally from Dostum’s Junbesh-i Milli-Yi Islami party. Dostum has described the allegations as "politically motivated."
Last week, the attorney general's office announced that a court case against Dostum and nine of his bodyguards over the accusations was handed over to the country's Supreme Court, with some questioning the timing of the announcement.
Heaping Pressure On Ghani
Dostum has not been formally charged with any crimes but his departure to Turkey for medical reasons was seen as a cover that allowed the government to sideline him without the embarrassment of a public dismissal. But his case has highlighted mounting political and ethnic tensions that have threatened the stability of the fragile national unity government.
Dostum, who has been accused of grave human rights violations, formed a new political opposition group in Turkey in June that heaped pressure on Ghani.
Dostum has teamed up with two powerful northern figures who have vented their anger and frustration at the embattled president: Atta Muhammad Noor, the ethnic Tajik governor of Balkh, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, the Hazara deputy chief executive of the Afghan government.
During the devastating civil war from 1992 to 1996, the three men fought over control of Balkh, a rare beacon of relative peace and economic development. But the three have since allied to combat what they see as a mutual foe in Ghani, a Pashtun who has been accused of favoring that ethnic group.