As always there was more interesting material in my interviews yesterday than made it into the radio story. Alex Thier (who directs The Future of Afghanistan project at the U.S. Institute of Peace) was especially impassioned about the implications of a notorious warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum re-emerging on the Afghan scene. Here’s what Thier had to say:
General Dostum’s return to Afghanistan was not a surprise because President Karzai has been courting him and therefore the Uzbek vote for the last couple months, but I think it really epitomizes part of the problem with President Karzai’s re-election campaign. Instead of standing up for clean government, rooting out corruption and a new focus on justice, which is really what the Afghan people I think are hungry for, he has gone back to warlords, people with long records of human rights abuse, like General Dostum, to try and shore up his base of support.
President Karzai has always used a big tent approach to politics in Afghanistan. He has tried to welcome everybody, including the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, back into the political fold. But the problem with people like Dostum and other warlords who are associated with Karzai’s government is that they are in fact the reason for why the Taliban were so successful in the 1990’s. These warlords had turned Afghanistan into such a chaotic and corrupt environment, that when the Taliban swept through Afghanistan they were welcomed by many of the Afghan people because the looting and rape and despotism that they represented was so horrific that the Afghan people welcomed the Taliban in their place. And the danger of what’s happening now, of welcoming these people back into the Afghan government, is that this is really in many ways what fuels the insurgency! I think that people’s dislike and distrust of the Afghan government is a powerful thing, and some people are starting to see the Taliban as an alternative.
On meeting Dostum:
I was an aid official in 1993 trying to negotiate passage for refugees who were returning from Iran into Afghanistan, and this was during the civil war, and General Dostum controlled the North, and these refugees were being preyed upon by a commander under Dostum. They were essentially robbing these poor refugees of the very little they had in terms of money and personal possessions and I had gone to see Gen. Dostum to try and convince him to let these people go freely through his territory and not to prey upon them after all the suffering that they had caused and we went to see him in his mud-walled fortress in northern Afghanistan. And I still remember it very clearly because there were dozens of supplicants waiting to see him to get something, there was Soviet television with topless women dancing in the background and we stated our case to him and he essentially waved us off as being not important. He wasn’t really concerned about the plight of refugees. And he was already known then as someone whose troops had committed grave abuses and he became even more famous during the civil war and then indeed in the post-Taliban period as well for acts that led to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of unarmed people.
On what’s at stake:
I believe that the gravest danger that we face in Afghanistan is the Afghan perception that the United States is supporting an Afghan president, a corrupt government, with its military forces. In other words, Afghanistan ends up looking like Vietnam in the 1960’s, where there is a leader who is . That’s the most dangerous not supported by the population but is deemed to be propped up by American military, that’s the most dangerous position we could be in. So if Hamid Karzai or another leader is so reviled by their own population that our support of them looks like the support of a corrupt regime then I think that’s the road to failure in Afghanistan.
On what’s possible:
I think that any outcome is not guaranteed to fail. I think that whether it’s Hamid Karzai or one of his other main challengers who ends up being the president of Afghanistan, we still have the opportunity, with that leadership to stabilize. But it will mean a real change of course for the Afghan government. It means much more attention to rule of law and justice issues and rooting out corruption and that’s something that could happen under Hamid Karzai’s leadership but it would have to be real change and I think that hat’s what our future and the Afghan people’s future hinges on.
On whether Dostum’s been promised a government post:
I think that more than a post for Dostum it means a post for his supporters, that Dostum gets to choose, as he did post-2001 for instance, who the minister of justice is or something like that so it’s not necessarily about Dostum but about Dostum’s imprint and association with the government that I think will de-legitimize the government and therefore, frankly, strengthen the insurgency.
On the consequences of Dostum’s return:
The crime frankly of Dostum’s return is that after all of these years he was finally pushed into exile in Turkey. He has been in Turkey because of his long record of abuses and in particular taking a member of parliament hostage in his house in the center of Kabul and engaging in a standoff with police that pushed him so far beyond the pale that he could no longer be protected. And so finally after years of thousands of people and Afghans and the international community complaining about Dostum he was pushed out! And the fact that Karzai went to such lengths to bring him back to the country just a few days before the election has really tarnished Karzai’s image.
And on the elections overall:
I think the real concern about this election coming up is that the outcome has to be seen to be legitimate by the Afghan people and there is a real danger that insecurity in the South will depress the vote particularly among Pashtuns and that may cause people to view the outcome as illegitimate and of course there is an enormous overhang from the recent Iranian election so that if Karzai wins this election the opposition is going to cry foul. They have already said they don’t think Karzai can win in the first round. So if Karzai does win in the first round there’s going to be deep suspicion of rigging and the opposition will engage in protests. And because of what’s happened in Iran, people may see those protests as legitimate and Karzai’s victory as illegitimate. And so there are a number of scenarios where this election outcome looks to be problematic. The best thing that could happen for Afghanistan’s democracy would be for this election to go into a second round. And for there to be probably President Karzai and one other challenger who can really make a strong case for their vision for the future. So far the Afghan election has not really been based on platforms it’s been based on personalities which is not a strong basis for the election.
If Karzai wins by a large margin it really looks like Iran and everyone says no it’s impossible he couldn’t have won by that many votes, it’s illegitimate. And if he wins by a small margin then people say there’s too much opportunity for tampering, there aren’t enough monitors, there are too many insecure areas, a few percentage points would have been too easy to rig and therefore it’s also illegitimate. And so I have fears that unless Karzai comes close but doesn’t win in the first round, people will say that the outcome is illegitimate and we have the potential for conflagration and Afghanistan’s political or legal system is not strong enough to deal with that sort of disruption.
I also spoke with Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation. She sees bringing Dostum back as a desperate move on Karzai’s part:
I think it shows that President Karzai is getting increasingly desperate to secure this week’s vote. I think he is concerned that the inroads the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has made with both the Uzbek and Tajik populations particularly in the North so this is an effort by Karzai to try to take away part of that vote bank from Abdullah Abdullah but it does show he’s really stooping to new lows. General Dostum sort of epitomizes the kind of warlord that we saw in the 80’s and 90’s, just ruthless , accused of possibly suffocating 2000 Taliban and other war crimes. I think there’s a lot of concern about Karzai bringing in people like this to secure the vote because the question is being asked what is he going to owe these people after the election? Are we going to see incompetent warlord types in key ministries which of course will make it very difficult for the coalition government to work with the second Karzai administration.
And I also called Selig Harrison to ask him about his op-ed in Monday’s New York Times and how Dostum fit into that picture. (Dostum is an Uzbek leader; Karzai has a mostly Tajik security apparatus that has alienated Karzai’s own Pashtuns.) Here’s some of what he had to say:
What’s important about Dostum’s return I think is that he’s really the strongest figure among 4 million Uzbeks and he’s in a position to deliver a very solid Uzbek vote whether by fair means or foul, for Karzai, who has also allied with another ethnic minority, the Hazaras and between the two of them 4 million Uzbeks and 7 million Hazaras and there are 14 million Pashtuns who he’s unsure of, Karzai’s unsure of, and he’s unlikely to get much support form 9 million Tajiks because Abdullah Abdullah is a Tajik. So I think what you see here is a move in the election chessboard, bringing back Dostum the boss of the Uzbeks to assure a solid Uzbek vote. He has as one of his vice-presidential running mates a very prominent Hazara and I think that when it’s all over if we are able to see where the votes were cast in ethnic terms we will see the Uzbek-Hazara alliance was important to Karzai.
It turns out Harrison has met Dostum as well:
Dostum is a warlord-in-chief of a very important area of the country, the Uzbek area, which has many of the most important resources in the country. So it’s important not only as a potent ethnic minority but because it’s also very resource-rich. It would be the area where any pipelines from Central Asia going through Afghanistan to South Asia would have to pass which has made Dostum an important force in Afghanistan for many years able to bargain in a very strong position with any kind of central government, with the Russians when they were there. At one point, when we had a rather chaotic situation in Afghanistan following the departure of the Russians and this succession of weak governments by different resistance groups in Kabul, at that point there was a serious move to get a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and into South Asia and Mr. Dostum was working very closely with Unocal and some of the American and other foreign companies involved and at one point he came to Washington and I was involved in a think tank meeting staged for him. I found him to be an extremely savvy guy who although he’s a warlord in a very rough part of the country in Afghanistan he was very smooth, very urbane in this think tank setting in Washington. He’s not a man who could become an all-Afghan leader because he’s a sectarian leader of the Uzbeks but he is an important powerbroker in the Afghan situation and has been for many years and changing his stripes whenever it suited him.
I think what this tells us about Afghanistan is that we’re a very long way from a quote modern Afghanistan in which ethnic and tribal identities are subordinated to some sort of national government and that any order that is developed in Afghanistan will have to take it into account, the fact that it’s always been a very de-centralized country.