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Dostum criticised for not being completely motivated by patriotism

Waheed Orya
Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is being praised for his fight against the Taliban in the north. But as his critics point out, his motivations may not be as pure as many locals wish they were.
4.09.2015  |  Balkh
General Dostum is welcomed by supporters in Faryab. (photo: Courtesy of General Dostum's office)
General Dostum is welcomed by supporters in Faryab. (photo: Courtesy of General Dostum's office)

Recently Afghanistan’s Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, returned from doing battle in the northern regions of Afghanistan where he holds sway. Dostum, who is also a general in the Afghan army and who is known as one of the country's most powerful, and quite probably brutal, warlords, went to the Faryab and Saripul provinces to quell unrest and insecurity caused by the Taliban. In coordination with Afghanistan’s National Security Council, he launched a large scale operation in the Faryab area. After successfully clearing out insurgents from this area, he then moved onto the Kohistanat district which had been taken over by the Taliban. Once again he was successful and the security situation in these areas has improved.

Unfortunately this didn't last as long as locals hoped. The Taliban were able to move back into some districts and dozens of policemen were killed. The Taliban themselves described their two-month-long resistance to Dostum as an accomplishment.

Faryab is home to a number of different groups, including Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pashtuns, and it is considered a gateway to the north; it is also part of Dostum's traditional power base. Locals say that Dostum's presence helped boost the morale of Afghan security forces in the area and that his understanding of the setting meant he could accomplish a lot in a short time.

Dostum's work in the north was widely covered both by daily media and on social media sites. Dostum was praised for his patriotism and locals held both small and large events in his honour, to express their support for him.

But the story is not as simple as it seems, nor can Dostum's motivations be considered entirely pure.

Firstly it is important to note that the security situation in Faryab did not actually deteriorate over the past two years. What happened was that the Ghormach district was annexed to the Faryab province in 2008. Ghormach is predominantly populated by Pashtuns and this is where the Taliban were active – this is why they have regrouped in this area.

There are also other dimensions to the fight in Faryab. After the formation of Afghanistan's National Unity Government in late 2014, a lot of the northern warlords worried they would be marginalised. Several of Dostum's compatriots put their uniforms back on and returned to their old stomping grounds; this included Mohammad Mohaqiq and Atta Muhammad. For Dostum, Faryab was a refuge where, given his antipathy toward the new regime, he could return to his support base.

In his first speech after the Unity Government was formed, Dostum said that he did not want to simply sit in his office. “I would not feel as though I am working for this government unless I restore security to the north,” he said.

In a nutshell, one could speculate that the fighting in Faryab, where he was accompanied by his two sons on the front lines, was also Dostum battling to restore his dignity and status.

There have been other criticisms of Dostum too. Leading members of the Pashtun community say that his forces are deliberately targeting only their community.

“Mortar attacks target the homes of one specific ethnic group,” Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, who was formerly Afghanistan's chief electoral officer, complained at a meeting in Kabul. “Anyone with a turban and beard is harassed. More than 90 percent of the detainees come from one specific ethnic group. That is why I am asking the media and the representatives of the people to side with the people,” Amarkhil stated.

An Afghan newspaper has also been critical about Dostum, saying that he is actually a civilian politician now and he should not be leading military campaigns. The first Vice President has clearly defined duties and responsibilities, the newspaper wrote. He should be at the side of the President in Kabul. Instead he went to Faryab to rescue his own ethnic group from the Taliban.

Dostum apparently doesn't care too much about what all his critics say. He has said that those who say he is targeting the Pashtuns are agents from Pakistan and that he has always supported the Pashtuns of the north.

Most of those who don't know the politics behind Dostum's fighting in Faryab may now have an idealistic view of the Vice President. They may even describe him as a national hero, without considering that he may have his own politicised motivations for doing what he is doing, rather than purely patriotic ones.

This idealised image will become increasingly important. Dostum has now suggested that Afghanistan create a 20,000-strong fighting force which he will lead, which will take on the Taliban. The force will be a special, highly mobile unit that can respond to attacks right around the country.

The proposal is being discussed with the National Security Council but as yet it is unclear whether it will be approved; as with many things, Dostum does, there are some opinionated opponents questioning his motives.

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