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Profile: Afghanistan's Abdel Rashid Dostum

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Abdul Rashid Dostum

Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leading, non-Pashtun warlord of Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Why Rashid Dostum Matters:

Rashid Dostum is one of Afghanistan's pre-eminent warlords, power brokers, and current deputy commander in chief of the Afghan National Army, a largely ceremonial post granted him by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in exchange for Dostum's political support. Dostum was a brutal general fighting alongside Soviet forces during most of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Dostum switched sides late in the war, joining the mujahideen and, subsequently, leading the fight against the Taliban with characteristic ruthlessness. Dostum's checkered, bloody past sums up the nature of rule-by-warlord in Afghanistan.

Dostum's Rise to Power:

Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, was born poor in 1954 in northern Afghanistan's Jowzan Province. He was educated in the Soviet Union, where he learned his military prowess and earned his patronage. He worked in Afghanistan's Ministry of State Security, and by the time the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, commanded 20,000 men on behalf of the occupier. He switched sides when he sensed the war going badly for the Soviet Union, and led the battle for Kabul in 1992, ousting the government of Mohammed Najibullah. He would switch sides again in the subsequent civil war, alternately fleeing and returning to Afghanistan.

Dostum Accused of Leading Massacre:

Dostum is accused of leading the massacre of hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war in November 2001, days after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan drove the Taliban from power. Over a three-day period, Taliban prisoners were stuffed into shipping containers--a frequent method of holding prisoners in Afghanistan--and denied food or water in stifling heat during a journey from Kunduz to Sheberghan. A Newsweek investigation in 2002 uncovered mass graves in Dasht-e Leili.

"The dead of Dasht-e Leili--and the horrific manner of their killing--are one of the dirty little secrets of the Afghan war," Newsweek wrote.

"More than Just Another Atrocity":

The episode is more than just another atrocity in a land that has seen many. The killings illustrate the problems America will face if it opts to fight wars by proxy, as the United States did in Afghanistan, using small numbers of U.S. Special Forces calling in air power to support local fighters on the ground. It also raises questions about the responsibility Americans have for the conduct of allies who may have no --interest in applying protections of the Geneva Conventions. The benefit in fighting a proxy-style war in Afghanistan was victory on the cheap--cheap, at any rate, in American blood."

Bush's Complicity, Dostum's Denials:

"The cost," Newsweek continued, "is that American forces were working intimately with 'allies' who committed what could well qualify as war crimes." A State Department intelligence report drafted in 2002 and declassified in 2009 confirms that about 1,500 Taliban prisoners were killed. The Bush administration refused to investigate. And topping the list of those "allies" in the massacre of Taliban troops: Rashid Dostum.

Responding to the accusations in a column for Radio Free Europe in July 2009, Dostum denied any involvement in an "intentional massacre."

Dostum and Hamid Karzai:

In August 2009, Dostum led a rally of 10,000 men and dozens of horses in favor of the incumbent president. Dostum urged the crowd to vote for Karzai, saying: "If you mess with Dostum, you mess with a million people." It was a signal that rule-by-warlord was again on the rise in Afghanistan, and that Karzai would facilitate it.
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