The Warlord Who Defines Afghanistan: An Excerpt From Bruce Riedel’s ‘What We Won’

Editor’s Note: Originally posted on
The Daily Beast
, in an excerpt from his new book
What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89
, Bruce Riedel examines the Uzbek Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the few prominent communists from the 1980s to still play a role in Afghan politics. Riedel argues that Dostum is a useful subject to study for those seeking to understand the violent politics of Afghanistan over the last half-century.

Shibirghan, the capital of Jowzjan province, is a remote and barren place, even by Afghan standards. To the north, Jowzjan borders on the Amu Darya River and Turkmenistan, a former part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Shibirghan is a city of about 150,000 on a flat, dry plain that extends past the river into Central Asia. Most of the city’s population is made up of ethnic Uzbeks, with a minority of Turkmen; the province as a whole is 40 percent Uzbek and 30 percent Turkmen. Natural gas has been exploited in the province since the 1970s, initially by a Soviet energy project. Shibirghan is on the Afghan ring road, the country’s main highway, which connects the country’s main cities. Shibirghan lies between the largest city in the north, Mazar-e Sharif, to the east and the largest city in the west, Herat.

Since the 1980s, Shibirghan has been the stronghold of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek Afghan warlord who has played a complex role in the wars that have wracked Afghanistan since 1978. In 1998, Dostum was my host during a visit to Shibirghan. I had met him before, in my Pentagon office, where he had related his life’s journey to me. A physically strong and imposing man, he has an Asian appearance, a hint of his Mongol roots. That day he was dressed to look like a modern political leader, in a suit and tie. The notorious warlord was hosting a meeting of the Northern Alliance, the coalition of Afghan parties that opposed the Taliban, in his hometown. In addition to Dostum, Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Hazara Shia leader Karim Khalili, and Mohammad Abdullah, a deputy of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, were in attendance. The U.S. party was led by Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Karl “Rick” Inderfurth, assistant secretary of State. At the start of the meeting, all the Afghans and Americans held each other’s hands in a symbol of unity for the cameras.

In the photo my face is grim. I was bleeding slowly from a bad leg wound that I’d received just an hour earlier, when we got off the small plane that the UN had provided to fly us from Kabul to Shibirghan. Dostum had arranged an elaborate welcome for us. At the airport an honor guard greeted us, and we boarded a convoy of vehicles to drive into the city. Hundreds of children and adults lined the road to welcome the U.S. delegation to Jowzjan, waving flags and banners in English that proudly carried the names of their schools, businesses, and trade unions. Many of the children were in their school uniforms. Most striking was that almost half were girls without head scarves, a rare sight in 1998 in Afghanistan, where very few girls went to school. The event had the look of a communist state celebration of May Day or the Russian Revolution—and it looked that way because Dostum was once a prize pupil of the Soviet Union’s intelligence service, the KGB.

Once we arrived in the city center, we moved rapidly into the main stadium. There we were to watch a game of buzkashi, a much more violent variant of polo played by Uzbeks and other Afghans. As we entered the stadium, I slipped and cut my leg badly. Watching the game, I realized that I was in distress and asked for help. Dostum himself summoned a doctor, who arrived carrying a satchel with a large saw on top that was used for amputating limbs. I demurred. Fortunately, NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell had come along to do a story on the talks, and her camera team included a former British Royal Marine commando who had been trained as a medic. He stitched me up quickly, using a can of 7UP as disinfectant. Ten hours later, doctors at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, gave me more thorough medical treatment. Andrea described the whole scene very well in her autobiography, Talking Back to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels.

Dostum certainly falls into the scoundrel department. He is a useful subject to study for those seeking to understand the violent politics of Afghanistan over the last half-century—especially the intrigues of Afghanistan’s communists, who seized power in 1978 and invited the Soviet Union to send an army into their country, setting the stage for the covert involvement of the United States. Participants on both sides in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s claimed to be more than warlords and militias. The Afghan communist government claimed to represent a new modern socialist world order. The Afghan resistance, the mujahedin, claimed to be holy warriors—jihadists—and freedom fighters defending their country from foreign invasion. The mujahedin narrative was much more honest than that of the communists.

At the commander level, however, there was not much difference between the two sides. Most commanders were warlords and behaved like warlords. The best of them, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of mujahedin forces in the Panjsher Valley, rose above the others in caring for the welfare of his supporters and the people of his fighting zone. The worst—like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the strongest mujahedin leader in the Pashtun community, and Dostum himself—exemplified the more typical commander on both sides: ruthless, corrupt, volatile, and violent. Dostum switched sides many times during his blood-soaked career. He has been backed over the years by the Soviet Union, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United States. He even temporarily aligned himself with the Taliban and Pakistan. After 35 years, Dostum is still a major player, so taking a more in-depth look at my host in Shibirghan is a good introduction to the Afghan war.

Dostum began his political life as a communist. Born in 1955 into a peasant family in a village near Shibirghan, he joined the communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), as a teenager, and in 1973 he became a paratrooper in the Afghan army. The Afghan communist party was badly divided from its birth in 1965. The two factions of the party, the Parcham (the Banner) and the Khalq (the People), were literally at each other’s throats throughout the party’s history. The Parcham drew its support from urban Afghans and from the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The Khalq was more oriented toward rural areas and drew its support almost exclusively from the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. The Soviets tried endlessly to convince the two to work together, with only the most limited success. The PDPA’s deep factional conflict would bedevil it and the Soviets until the collapse of the communist state in 1992, a collapse in which Dostum was a central player.

On April 27, 1978, the PDPA’s supporters in the Afghan army staged a coup d’état in Kabul and overthrew the government of President Mohammad Daoud Khan, who had staged his own coup five years earlier, ousting King Zahir and creating the first Afghan republic. The Saur (April) Revolution would precipitate an Afghan conflict that continues to this day. Dostum was then commander of an armored unit in the army and a member of the Parcham faction. The April coup was led by the Khalq faction and its leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, who became president of the new People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The Khalq quickly purged many Parchamists from the party and the country, ignoring advice from Moscow to try to build a broad-based government, including noncommunists. The Khalqis were violent ideologues who saw enemies on every side, and they quickly acquired them.

Dostum fled the country to Pakistan, where he lived in exile in Peshawar. As a communist, Dostum did not fit in well in Pakistan, which was rapidly emerging as the main patron of the resistance to the communist takeover and the principal sponsor of the mujahedin. Dostum stayed in exile until December 1979, when the Soviet 40th Red Army invaded Afghanistan and killed Taraki’s successor, Hafizullah Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal in his place. Dostum then returned to Afghanistan to become a local militia commander defending the natural-gas fields, the only domestic source of energy in the country, in his home province of Jowzjan. Dostum was a natural soldier and a good leader whose troops admired his charisma and tough military approach. He specialized in frontal assaults on the enemy, and he quickly acquired a reputation for brutal and extreme violence. In 1982 Dostum was promoted to command a battalion of the militia run by the communist government’s secret police, the State Information Service, known as the KHAD (Khedamati Ittlaati-e Dawlat). The KHAD was the KGB’s Afghan protégé; it also got some assistance from the East German intelligence service. At its height it had about 30,000 employees and an additional 100,000 informants. Its founder was Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, a Pahstun known for his ruthlessness in a regime that extolled extremism. In 1986 Najibullah would become Afghanistan’s fourth and last communist dictator. He was nicknamed Najib (the bull) for his cruelty.

Under Najibullah’s leadership, Dostum thrived as a commander of the KHAD militia in Jowzjan, and soon his Jowzjani militia was the most successful communist fighting force in the country. Dostum’s Jowzjanis formed a disciplined force that often defeated mujahedin commanders in the northern part of the country and even persuaded some to defect to the communist cause. Within a year Dostum’s force was upgraded to a division of 10,000 men, called the 53rd Division or the Jowzjani Division. The Jowzjani Division became one of only a few Afghan communist units that the 40th Red Army felt that it could rely on to fight well. For his performance, Dostum was given the Hero of Afghanistan award, the highest honor bestowed by the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. In 1988, with the 40th Red Army withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Jowzjani militia was given responsibility for leading the communist military campaign in north-central Afghanistan along the southern border of the Soviet Union. After its defeat in Afghanistan, Moscow wanted Dostum controlling the Amu Darya. By then his control of his home province and the surrounding area was complete.

In 1989 Dostum was promoted again, becoming commander of the 7th Afghan Army Corps, with even more responsibility for the north. Najibullah was by now president of Afghanistan, and the KHAD effectively ran the communist state, which was under siege by the mujahedin. Estimates of the size of Dostum’s command in the north range from around 20,000 to 45,000. His forces included three infantry divisions, an armored brigade, 60 MiG aircraft, 60 helicopters, and 200 Soviet-made tanks. He ruled a state within a state. He sent elite units of his force to buttress Najibullah’s garrisons in other parts of the country, including at the key battle of Jalalabad in 1989, which halted the mujahedin advance on Kabul.

Early in 1992, Dostum read the handwriting on the wall. The USSR had ceased to exist, and its aid to Najibullah was coming to an end. In December 1991, Dostum turned to the newly independent country of Uzbekistan and its dictator, President Islam Karimov, for aid. In 1992 Dostum “defected” to the side of the mujahedin and joined in the battle to take Kabul and oust Najibullah. Afghanistan’s civil war entered a new phase: the communists were finished, and a new power struggle arose, between the warlords. Dostum would be a central player, shifting alliances constantly from his power base in Jowzjan. He solicited aid from many regional players, including Iran and Uzbekistan in particular but also Russia and Turkey. In 1998 it was Iran that backed him most actively. A senior delegation from the Iranian intelligence service, MOIS, arrived right after my delegation left to check on what Dostum had been up to with the Americans. He went into exile twice in the late 1990s, on both occasions spending much of his time in Turkey. In 2001 he again became an Iranian protégé, fighting the Taliban from exile. The United States became his new patron when he joined the CIA campaign to oust the Taliban in the last months of 2001, after the 9/11 attacks. Dostum famously led Uzbek cavalry charges supported by U.S. B-52 bombers to defeat the Taliban.

Dostum remains a power broker today, although his health has deteriorated from the effects of a hard life and heavy drinking. He still commands Jowzjan and can deliver one million votes, mostly Uzbeks, in a national election. He was a key supporter of President Hamid Karzai’s reelection in 2009. Dostum is a warlord par excellence and a classic product of Afghan politics, which is both local and volatile. He has been accused of numerous war crimes against prisoners and sadistic treatment of his own supporters when they crossed him. In a country with many brutal warlords, his brutality is legendary. Yet in his state-within-a-state in the 1980s and 1990s, Dostum ensured more gender equality than almost any other Afghan leader. In the second decade of the 21st century, he is one of the few prominent communists from the 1980s to still play a role on the Afghan stage. In the deadly politics of Afghanistan, Dostum is a proven survivor.