One-time warlord and former vice-president of Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum has returned to the country as the Taliban inch closer to taking control of his long-time stronghold in the north and fight for control of a string of cities elsewhere.
Ehsan Nero, a spokesman for the former army paratrooper, told AFP that Dostum arrived in Kabul last week and was meeting senior officials to talk about security in Sheberghan, capital of Jawzjan province. The former vice president has been in Turkey for months, where he was believed to be receiving medical treatment.
On Wednesday, President Ashraf Ghani flew to the country's northern holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif, besieged by Taliban, to rally his beleaguered forces, news agency AFP reported.
According to the report, Ghani held talks with Mazar's long-time strongman Atta Mohammad Noor and Dostum about the defence of the city.
So, who is Abdul Rashid Dostum?
- Dostum —an Afghan civil war general known for vicious, mercurial behaviour while ruling over the northern border region for 30 years — has overseen one of the largest militias in the north, which garnered a fearsome reputation in its fight against the Taliban in the 1990s — along with accusations that his forces massacred thousands of insurgent prisoners of war.
- Dostum was born in 1954 in Khojha Dukoh, northern Afghanistan. As a “four-star general”, he served as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, the outgoing president Hamid Karzai, as per Gulf News.
- He is a powerful ethnic Uzbek leader, is notorious in Afghanistan for extreme barbarities and for repeatedly switching loyalties over 40 years of conflict. Despite a catalogue of war crimes attached to his name and accusations of organising the rape and torture of a political rival, Dostum became Afghanistan's first vice-president in 2014.
- Dostum has been accused of perpetrating war crimes and rape in Afghanistan and has served as vice-president of the country for over six years since 2013. He stands accused of massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war during the US-backed operations in 2001 that toppled the hardline Islamists' rule over the country.
- The general, who fought with as well as against Soviet troops and is said to have been instrumental in helping US Special Forces topple the Taliban regime following the 9/11 attacks, is revered by fellow ethnic Uzbeks but still feared by many in Afghanistan, as per NBC News.
- In the Soviet-Afghan war, he fought against the Mujahideen and switched sides just before the fall of the Najibullah government.
- According to Washington Post, in 2009, then president Hamid Karzai forced Dostum to leave for Turkey over allegations that he beat, abducted and ordered the sexual assault of another political rival, Akbar Bai. Dostum was allowed to come back a few weeks before that year’s elections, throwing his weight behind Karzai to help him win another term.
- In late 2016, Ahmad Eshchi, a political rival of General Dostum, said he had been beaten and sodomised on his orders, reported BBC
- As per New York Times, he is an illiterate former Communist enforcer turned warlord who at one time or another was allied with every side in Afghanistan’s long war — including the Taliban — and turned on most of them. He is accused of war crimes, including allowing his men to suffocate thousands of Taliban prisoners in locked truck containers.
- Dostum has survived several other attempts on his life, including one claimed by the Islamic State group last July in Kabul that killed 23 people including AFP driver Mohammad Akhtar.
Why is the Afghan president meeting with him?
Ghani is holding talks with Noor and Dostum about the defence of Mazar-e-Sharif as Taliban fighters inched closer to its outskirts.
Officials gave no indication of the outcome, but later Wednesday said two of the country's top soldiers had been replaced by General Hibatullah Alizia as armed forces chief and General Sami Sadat leading the elite commandos.
The loss of Mazar would be a catastrophic blow to the Kabul government and represent the complete collapse of its control over the north — long a bastion of anti-Taliban militias.
After conquering most of the north, the Taliban have now set their sights on Mazar — long a linchpin for the government's control of the area — after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.
Mazar saw some of the bloodiest fighting during the Taliban's scorched-earth rampage through the country in the 1990s, with rights groups accusing the jihadists of massacring up to 2,000 civilians — mostly Shiite Hazaras — after capturing the city in 1998.
The Taliban have appeared largely indifferent to peace overtures, and seem intent on a military victory to crown a return to power after their ouster 20 years ago in the wake of the 11 September attacks.
With inputs from AFP