In mid-July, the time had come. Abdul Rashid Dostum, arguably Afghanistan’s most notorious warlord, was appointed marshal during a ceremonial ceremony in northern Afghanistan. He is the third man in the history of the country to receive this honour. Dostum’s promotion was part of the deal that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani struck last May with Abdullah Abdullah, his main opponent with whom he had clashed after the 2019 presidential election. In doing so, Ghani has once again strengthened the forces he once wanted to fight.
Like other warlords, Dostum has been doing his business at the Hindu Kush for decades. His militia is sometimes responsible for some of the country’s worst war crimes. Until some time ago, Dostum himself was still fugitive after being accused of torturing and raping a political rival. Particularly precarious: At that time, in 2017, Dostum was officially Vice-President of Afghanistan and thus Ghani’s deputy. After the accusations grew louder and Kabul also had to face international pressure, Dostum settled in Turkey. The ethnic Uzbek maintains good contacts with Recep Erdogan. Back in 2008, after similar allegations, almost the same scenario took place.
While Dostum’s supporters celebrate his promotion, many observers see it as a scandalous farce, exemplified by the failure of Western operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, since the end of 2001, the US and its allies have been specifically supporting those warlords who fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s and ultimately were the reason for the formation of the reactionary Taliban. To this day, the West has been criticized for this “system error”. “How can you believe a government that ignores war crimes or, worse, transports war criminals to the highest government posts?” says Erik Edstrom, a former U.S. soldier and author who recently published a book about his deployment in Afghanistan. Today, Edstrom is one of the harshest critics of the war. He accuses the US government of “hypocrisy and cynicism” regarding Dostum’s promotion.
When the Americans invaded the country together with their NATO partners, they allied themselves with every warlord and militiaman who met them in the fight against the Taliban. Dostum was in the front row at the time. In the first months after the NATO invasion, his Junbish militia was blamed for one of the bloodiest massacres in Afghanistan’s recent history. Back then, in November 2001, Dostum and his fighters had captured a larger group of Taliban fighters and locked them in several containers. The containers were then driven to the Dasht-e Laili desert, where they were left standing for a few days. From the outside, the Junbish militias repeatedly punched holes in the containers, while the prisoners went through the worst torment and thirsted in the heat.
When the containers were opened a few days later, eyewitnesses later described it as a bestial stench, a mixture of blood, decay, urine and faeces. Of the approximately 220 men per container, only six people survived the ordeal on average. The few survivors were executed immediately afterwards. Their bodies were buried in mass graves. Dostum himself participated personally in all the crimes. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, known for his numerous bestsellers about the region, called the Dasht-e Laili massacre the worst and most brutal human rights crime of the Afghanistan war.
The following year, Dostum was rewarded for his crimes by the new Washington-installed government of Hamid Karzai to general. In the years that followed, Dostum’s militias committed war crimes. In 2016, For example, Human Rights Watch reported on Pashtun villages in northern Afghanistan that were terrorized by Dostum’s fighters in the context of supposed “anti-Taliban operations.” According to eyewitnesses, several civilians were killed and tortured.
“The fact that Dostum has now been given the title of marshal, even though Ghani has previously talked about legal prosecution on the basis of the existing allegations, once again highlights the complete failure of the Afghan government. Dostum is part of a shabby overall picture of impunity in Afghanistan,” says Patricia Gossmann, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. It underlines the fact that, despite their criminal offences, powerful men have never been held accountable. “These cases highlight why the International Criminal Court needs to address the investigations in Afghanistan,” Gossmann said.
Dostum is indeed regarded as a prime example of the Afghan warlord. His career alone, which began under the Afghan Communists, makes this abundantly clear. In the late 1980s, Dostum gathered loyal men of his ethnicity around him. They were the first structures of his notorious Junbish militia, which still exists today and also has a political arm. Under Mohammad Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last communist president, Dostum made a name for himself as a mujahideen hunter. He regularly swarmed with his militias and hunted them down. Civilians were regularly targeted. But on the battlefield, Dostum was an egoist. His personal advantage has always been a top priority. For this reason, he changed alliances regularly. There is virtually no faction to which Dostum was briefly unaind. For a time, even in the north of the country, he held his own pseudo-state, including its own currency.
Not everyone welcomes the fact that Dostum is now alone and isolated in the criticism. “There is absolutely no doubt that Dostum committed war crimes. Among those warlords who were active in the 1990s, he is always considered particularly bad. I think he was only an easier target for this because of his ties to the former communist government,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. According to Ruttig, other warlords and war crimes are met with far less to no criticism, even though, unlike Dostum, they have “real power”.
A recent example can also be found in this. Shortly after Dostum’s promotion, Assadullah Khaled was re-elected as defense minister by President Ghani. Khaled has committed numerous crimes in the past in his capacity as governor and intelligence chief, including kidnapping, murder and torture. But unlike Dostum, he is rarely in the headlines.