MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
likes to say that he has the world’s most difficult job, and no one
doubts that he is at least in the running. But amid the plethora of
problems he faces, it might come as a surprise that his first vice
president, whom he selected, is one of the biggest.
Then again, Abdurrashid Dostum’s name is synonymous with
volatility and brutality. For decades, the former plumber, wrestler
and oil refinery worker has led northern Afghanistan’s ethnic
Uzbeks, first as a ruthless — and reckless — militia commander,
now as a politician. The U.S. State Department, in cables released by WikiLeaks, once called Dostum a “quintessential warlord,” and
Ghani himself termed him a “known killer.”
That didn’t stop Ghani from making a deal with him. In the last
presidential election, Dostum promised and delivered to Ghani
the crucial Uzbek vote, propelling the unlikely duo to a narrow
victory. But what was convenient a year ago is now quite the
opposite. Instead of helping Ghani unite the country, Dostum
has revived a sense of indignation toward Afghanistan’s ethnic
Pashtun majority and cobbled together an insurrection in the
Dostum claims the charges are a form of blackmail, aimed at
stripping him of his authority. His followers contend that Ghani
used Dostum for votes and is consolidating power into a cabal of
ethnic Pashtuns. They say the government neglects and even
encourages the deterioration of security in the minority-dominated
areas in the north where the Taliban and the Islamic State’s regional
affiliate have wrested control of numerous districts and launched a
string of suicide bombings and kidnappings. Ghani and Dostum’s
fragile compact began to unravel when the vice president was accused
last December of ordering an elderly political rival to be manhandled
sodomized with a Kalashnikov. It was the second time he had been
charged with a similar offense. After the first instance in 2008,
Dostum went into a long exile at his lavish home in Turkey. Since
refusing to cooperate with the attorney general in May, he has been
out of Afghanistan, mostly in Turkey again.
Last month, Dostum attempted to fly from Turkey to the northern
city of Mazar-e Sharif, but the government prevented the plane
from landing once it learned who might be on board. At a meeting
of Dostum’s followers in late July, two of his closest aides expressed
that he would return any day, probably by barging across a nearby
land border with either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. His return,
they said, would mark the beginning of a massive wave of protests.
Dostum’s co-conspirators call themselves the Coalition for the
Salvation of Afghanistan. They have not always been friendly
with each other. Foremost among them is Tajik warlord-turned
-provincial-governor Attah Mohammed Noor — against whom
Dostum fought vicious battles in the early 1990s. They are joined
by Mohammad Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara leader and deputy to
the government’s chief executive, and Foreign Minister Salahuddin
Rabbani, a member of Noor’s Jamaat-e-Islami party. Together they
claim to represent Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities,
although the depth of their support among the public, let alone
within their own parties, is yet to be put to the
They insist that they are not calling for the collapse of the
government, only that Ghani relinquish power to officials and
cabinet ministers hailing from various parties and ethnicities,
Dostum prime among them. A key demand is that the criminal
case against Dostum be dropped and his return to Afghanistan
expedited. Their rhetoric is menacing. “We see this as a tyrant
government,” Noor said in an interview at his opulent office in
Mazar-e Sharif. He said that the coalition is negotiating with
the government but that if coalition members aren’t heeded,
that could change. “We may have to take control of
administrative buildings and airports to put pressure on
and paralyze the government,” he said.
Noor took aim at the U.S. government, too, which coalition
supporters see as taking Ghani’s side in what should be an
internal political dispute.
“We were the ones, not Ghani, who helped the U.S. fight the
Taliban,” he said. “It is wrong that the U.S. should use us
when they need us and then throw us away like empty Pepsi
cans. They shouldn’t support a group of five individuals against
everyone else,” he added, referring to an earlier claim that all
government decision-making is channeled through Ghani and
four others, all Pashtuns.
The allegations of unscrupulousness fly both ways. Ghani’s
office has been dismissive of the coalition, saying that its
members’ outrage stems not from any illiberalism on his part
but from the fact that his firm stance on eliminating corruption
has cut off strongmen such as Noor and Dostum from systems
of patronage. Ghani, a Western-educated former World Bank
employee who gave up U.S. citizenship to run for president,
has emphasized transparency as a way of shoring up
Afghanistan’s corruption-riddled institutions.
“For the first time, powerful people feel that their wrongdoings
will be accounted for through a proper apolitical, independent
judiciary — and they feel threatened,” said Haroon Chakhansuri,
a deputy chief of staff in Ghani’s office.
The rift risks exacerbating ethnic polarization, especially with
coalition leaders claiming that Ghani is brazenly limiting power,
not just to Pashtuns, but also to a small group of confidants from
his clan — and all under the nose of American advisers who espouse
On the other side, the lack of any major Pashtun leader in the
coalition has made Pashtuns in the north uneasy about the
“This coalition is nothing but a coalition of killers,” said
M.W. Matin, a doctor in Mazar-e Sharif who plans to run for
office in next year’s parliamentary elections. “But the tragedy
is that Ghani had to bring a killer like Dostum into his office
just to win.”
For some Uzbeks, Dostum’s violent past is a source of pride.
They believe him when he claims to be descended from an
ancient line of Uzbek emperors. His face looks out from
dozens of giant billboards
over Mazar-e Sharif’s drab grid of streets.
“We say that Ghani has a ‘money bank’ but Dostum has a
‘people bank,’ ” said Sher Aqah Tataroghla, a 23-year-old
student living in a hostel
that is mostly Uzbek. “In the past we couldn’t even speak
Uzbek in public, but now you’ll see it on signs around the city.
One hundred percent of us are behind him.”
Tajiks in Noor’s party and Hazaras in Mohaqiq’s do not seem
to be uniting behind the coalition as uniformly as Uzbeks.
Those leaders command more limited cachet in their communities,
with followings that pale in intensity compared with Dostum’s.
Stoking that sense of ethnic solidarity — mobilized through voting
blocs as well as people in the streets — may well be the crux of the
coalition’s ultimate strength. Without it, many Afghans may find it
difficult to see its leaders as fighting for anything but themselves.
“It’s not for salvation as they say, it is about their money and their
pride — that’s how politicians are all over the rwold, right?” said
Moqaddas Rahim, 28, who has been unemployed for four years
after serving as an interpreter for U.S. forces. He knows how to
use a computer and speaks six languages, including fluent English
with a distinctly southern twang.
“To be a good Afghan, you can’t trust your government,” he said.
“Look, I’m hopeless, man — not about my God but about my country.
Here, the worst criminals become the most powerful people.”