Home Afghanistan Comes a Full Circle : Dostum’s Return

Afghanistan Comes a Full Circle : Dostum’s Return


General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s controversial First Vice President and its most powerful Uzbek leader, returned to Afghanistan on July 22, 2018, after 14 months, amid high drama including a suicide bombing at the airport which left more than a dozen people dead. As per the Afghan government, he was in Turkey for medical treatment. However, it was widely believed that he was on a self imposed exile amid allegations that he and his men tortured Ahmad Eshchi, a political foe. We examine the implications of his return, which in many ways symbolises that change in Afghanistan is only superficial which has retriggered a debate on whether the rich and powerful are above the rule of the land in Afghanistan.


Quintessential Warlord

The flamboyant former warlord had a humble beginning in 1970 in a gas refinery in Sheberghan, participating in union politics. He subsequently joined the Afghan Army and in the 1980s had his own militia controlling the Northern Provinces of Afghanistan.  Post the withdrawal of the Soviet forces and collapse of the Najibullah government, Dostum ruled over an area referred to as Northern Autonomous Region and even printed his own currency. However, during the Taliban rule, he was forced to flee to Turkey, and after the fall of the Taliban, he joined Hamid Karzai's presidential administration. From 2011, he was part of the leadership council of the National Front of Afghanistan and in 2014, he aligned with Ashraf Ghani and was appointed as the First Vice President in the National Unity Government(NUG).

Dostum is known for personally leading his troops against the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan, as also for his mercurial and brutal behavior which has led him to be accused of numerous human rights violations while fighting the Taliban. Over the years, the strongman has also developed a reputation for being able to pick a winner to align with. In the 1980s, he was part of the Pro Soviet, Afghan National Army fighting the Mujahedeen, but deserted the Najibullah government before its collapse. He subsequently shifted sides multiple times, till he joined the Northern Alliance and helped the US forces in ousting the Taliban. On his return from Turkey in July this year, he announced his participation in the ‘Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan’ along with foe turned ally Atta Noor, while still discharging duties of the Vice President. This has stirred up the political potpourri, especially keeping in mind his panache for switching sides to emerge on the winning one. 

Since Gen Dostum’s departure to Turkey in mid 2017, the Taliban and Islamic State have increased their footprint in Northern/ North Western Afghanistan, and the security situation has thus become much more turbulent. In addition, in July this year, post the arrest of one of his ally, Nizamuddin Qaisari, a district police chief in the province of Faryab, people had been demonstrating for release of Qaisiri and return of Dostum. This had severely impacted the government functioning in Northern /North Western Afghanistan. His return has ensured an end to these protests and normalisation of the situation to some extent, albeit on the civil unrest side. General John Nicholson, then commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSP) had said that he hopes Gen Dostum’s return, from a security perspective, will provide greater stability in the North-West part of the country, which is a telling testimony of the influence Gen Dostum wields in that part of Afghanistan. It also clearly indicates that the RSP was not averse to his return, keeping in mind his expected contribution in improving the security situation in North – West Afghanistan.

Compromised Nation Building

The Afghan government’s action in mid 2017, to follow up on the complaint of Eshchi, was seen as an effort to curtail the abuse of power, especially by the erstwhile warlords and promote a sense of equality in justice for all. The President may have been trying to send a message that nobody is above the rule of law and also seemed to be consolidating  his power by trying to reduce the influence of the warlords. While certain segments of the society have been dismayed by General Dostum’s return, his supporters accuse the government of using the complaint as a pretext to restrict his influence and sideline him, thus stifling the voice of the minority. While his return to Afghanistan and resumption of duties as Vice President may have nixed any attempts by the NUG to portray itself as a champion of fairness of law / justice, it has definitely proved that in the game of survival and power equations, with the Parliamentary elections scheduled this year and Presidential next year, Dostum is too important a player to be sidelined.

Mr Ashraf Ghani seems to be stuck between the devil and the deep sea with regard to how to deal with Dostum. General Dostum has been one of those who has supported holding peace talks with the Taliban and in the present climate where the likelihood of some headway being made in peace talks seems more than in the past years, Dostum’s support could prove crucial in accepting any terms and conditions worked out; even for starting a formal peace talk. In addition, he has the backing of the Uzbek community whose support helped Mr Ghani win the election last time. On the other hand, the clamour to prosecute Dostum and his bodyguards has not entirely dissipated, especially among the Western nations. In fact, the Heads of Mission in Afghanistan of the European Union and Norway have called for a conclusion to the legal proceedings against him. Mr Ghani seems to be treading a middle path and while Gen Dostum has been allowed to return and continues to enjoy his appointment as First Vice President, The case against him has not been dropped and nor has his ally, Nizamuddin Qaisari been released. Gen Dostum meanwhile, as per reports, is not attending meetings and nor has he ventured towards Faryab /Jawzjan provinces where his presence may bolster the security forces and assist in improving the security situation.

While power play posturing and politics of compromise continues, the security and political situation in Afghanistan is likely to get murkier. The NUG has had to deal with disparate pulls and pressures from within and outside and has had undertones of ethnic divide. The present standoff with Gen Dostum is likely to compound the same. This in turn would also impact the security situation, which is fragile at best. The common man meanwhile wonders at the inequality of law, where different set of rules seem to apply to the powerful; while others suggest they should look at the bigger picture and the greater good of the country.


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/22/world/asia/afghanistan-general-abdul-rashid-dostum-rape.html, acessed on 29 Aug 2018

[ii]  https://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-dostum/afghan-vice-president-dostum-escapes-blast-on-return-from-exile-idINKBN1KC0IX, acessed on 29 Aug 2018

[iii]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdul_Rashid_Dostum , accessed on 01 Sept 2018

[iv]  https://www.khaama.com/eu-norway-calls-for-conclusion-of-legal-proceedings-against-gen-dostum-05760/, accessed on 01 September 2018

[v]   http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The-Position-of-General-Abdul-Rashid-Dostum-in-Afghanistan-s-Power-Equations.htm accessed on 01 September 2018

[vi]  https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/afghanistan-a-game-of-thrones, accessed on 01 September 2018

[vii]   http://www.arabnews.com/node/1343376/world/Anti-government protests end in Afghan north after appeal of returned exiled Dostum, accessed on 05 September 2018

[viii]   https://ariananews.af/ghani-dostum-differences-remain-in-place/, accessed on 12 Sep 2018



Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India.

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