KABUL – He is among Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, accused of widespread abuses including the massacre of thousands of Taliban prisoners. Now he's back, reinstated by President Hamid Karzai in a top army post despite Western demands for sweeping reform.
Karzai this month restored Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum as chief of staff to the commander in chief of the Afghan army — a job he lost in 2008 after failing to cooperate in an investigation into the shooting of a rival.
Although the job has little real power, Western officials and Afghan human rights groups see the appointment as a sign that Karzai remains unable to shake off his ties to warlords and regional powerbrokers despite heavy international pressure for a new beginning as the U.S. and NATO ramp up the war against the Taliban.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Monday he would press Karzai to rescind the appointment when he meets with the Afghan leader during this week's international conference in London aimed at building support for the weak Afghan government.
"As we have noted repeatedly in the past, the United States maintains concerns about any leadership role for Mr. Dostum in today's Afghanistan," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
Among other objections, critics fear the appointment sends the wrong signal to the Taliban at a time when the government is preparing to offer the militants economic incentives to abandon the insurgency — a program expected to figure prominently at the London conference.
Human rights groups have alleged Dostum was responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners captured by his militia early in the Afghan war — a charge that Dostum denies.
"Gen. Dostum joins a Karzai government which suffers deficiency of constitutional legitimacy, lacks vision and unity, and is mired in corruption and inefficiency," the independent Afghanistan Rights Movement said this week. "With notorious warlords such as Gen. Dostum in power, Mr. Karzai can neither send a genuine message of peace to the armed opposition, nor can he convince Afghans that they live in a just society where their lives and rights are protected by the state."
Noor Olhag Olomi, a member of parliament from Kandahar, called the Dostum appointment a "violation of human rights" of Afghans who had suffered abuse at the hands of Dostum and his forces.
Karzai and his spokesmen were outside the country Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
Dostum's role illustrates the complexity of Afghan society and politics, where power is based on forging alliances with traditional leaders — many of whom have backgrounds that Westerners and many Afghans find unsavory.
Two of Karzai's vice presidents — Mohammed Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili — are ex-warlords, a term applied to regional leaders who rose to power in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s and in the civil war that erupted after the defeat of the Soviets.
Many of them, including Dostum, fought the Taliban after they seized Kabul in 1996 and joined with the U.S. to oust the hardline Islamic movement from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The burly, bearded Dostum, 55, is a former Communist general and longtime leader of the Uzbek ethnic minority who delivered hundreds of thousands of Uzbek votes to Karzai in last year's presidential election. His supporters believe his continued role is crucial in helping blunt Taliban encroachment in northern provinces where his influence is strong.
"We are very happy that Karzai has appointed Dostum to this job," said Masooud Ahmad Masooud, head of the youth movement in Dostum's part of Jawzjan province. "We are proud of him because he is the man who defeated al-Qaida in the north."
Karzai's continued ties to Dostum are widely seen as a litmus test of the president's commitment to reform.
After the surrender of Taliban fighters in Kunduz in November 2001, there were allegations that Dostum's forces suffocated up to 2,000 Taliban fighters in container trucks as they were being transported to prison.
Efforts to reach Dostum were unsuccessful because he was not answering his telephone. However, a close Dostum ally, Ismail Manshi, said it was unfair to single out Dostum's followers because so many others were involved in killings and abuses over the past two decades. He said allegations against Dostum are aimed at sidelining the Uzbeks, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the population.
"Hundreds disappeared during the Taliban time and we still don't know where they are," Manshi said. "If human rights activists curse Gen. Dostum for killing the Taliban, they should launch a general investigation into everybody involved in the killings."
Afghan political analysts believe Karzai gave the military post to Dostum as a consolation prize after parliament rejected three of Dostum's candidates for Cabinet posts this month.
"Dostum was really upset. He was really vocal," said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. "This is more of a political gesture to Dostum to appease him."
Mir said Karzai has been talking about making a fresh start in his second term but realized he couldn't afford to alienate warlords like Dostum.
"Now he knows that a country like Afghanistan values traditional leaders," Mir said. "I think this is a maneuver from Mr. Karzai to have no opposition inside the country."