The Afghan Game of Thrones

News Abroad
tags: Afghanistan

Abdul Rashid Dostum

Imagine if you will, armies led by brutal warlords fighting epic battles on majestic mountains on horseback, with their leader charging at the front.  The merciless butchering of enemies by beheading, torture, and public execution.  Factions battling one another frequently and unexpectedly, and never knowing whom to trust.  Conflict shaped by centuries of betrayal, murder, violence, and bloodshed on all sides.  You may be thinking that this seems like the plot to HBO’s “Game of Thrones”– however – this is a depiction of the real-life complicated history of Afghan politics.   And much like HBO’s hit show – it is nearly impossible to predict what might happen next.  And in such an environment, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict who will be the next to take the proverbial “Iron Throne” in Kabul.

One likely contender is General Rashid Dostum, the First Vice-President of Afghanistan, whom the New York Times recently reported has been barred from entering the United States by the State Department, with an official referring to him as the “quintessential warlord.” This represents a significant shift in US policy, particularly in the complicated world of Central Asian politics, and a potential further misstep in dealing with our Afghan allies.     

Much is written about Dostum's past.  My colleague and friend Dr. Brian Glyn Williams’s exemplary book The Last Warlord being the foremost guide on Dostum and his history.  It is true that Dostum has fought for multiple sides throughout Afghanistan’s contemporary conflicts - first in support of the Communist Afghan regime, eventually earning the rank of general, later fighting in Afghanistan’s Civil War for his own ethnic Uzbek political party, at one point, briefly aiding the Taliban regime before ultimately defecting to the anti-Taliban bloc collectively known in the media as the “Northern Alliance.” Dostum is the de-facto political and military leader of the ethnic Uzbek minority in Northern Afghanistan, and as such, has had to make many difficult decisions to solidify and maintain his position.  It was best described to me once by a veteran intelligence official as "he runs in a tough crowd." Dostum is a warlord, but he is essentially a warlord of our own making.  He enjoyed our support in the initial days following 9/11, and quickly proved himself as one of the most effective commanders in the campaign to defeat the Taliban.  Doug Stanton's Horse Soldiers depicts Dostum's campaign against the Taliban and chronicles his fearlessness in battle, leading horse-mounted attacks alongside US Special Forces teams.

Dostum’s reputation as a brutal field commander capable of extreme violence on the battlefield emerged during his tenure as a powerful militia commander during the Soviet-Afghan war. He and his militia forces earned a reputation for cruelty, raping and pillaging with such ferocity, that they colloquially became known as gilimjans (carpet thieves), as they were said to pillage to such an extreme degree, that they would even steal the carpets off the floor. Dostum’s fearsome reputation proceeded him following the US intervention in Afghanistan following 9/11, when he reportedly carried out mass executions of Taliban prisoners in the aftermath, according to local sources.  

Subsequent reporting indicated that Dostum had wanted the same Taliban prisoners to return home unharmed.  Many other unconfirmed reports of his brutality have surfaced over the years, such as the legend of his crushing of a thief under the treads of a tank - but one must also consider the political and cultural landscape when assessing these rumors.  There is an undeniable long history of ethnic tensions in Afghanistan.  These tensions are not likely to be settled anytime soon, nor should we expect the Afghans to ignore centuries of brutality.  

Singling out an actor (and his ethnic group by default) serves only to further complicate an extremely volatile and tenuous situation on the ground.  Indeed, if we were to look far enough back into the past of most political actors in the country, we would undoubtedly find some actions that Western culture might not consider ethical, or even legal in some cases.  Afghanistan has a turbulent history - and many groups have proverbial blood on their hands.  However, it should be noted that this can be said about most, if not all, actors in the Afghan political environment. Former-Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was a notorious warlord and narcotics trafficker in Kandahar province, yet this did not affect President Karzai's multiple official visits. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was notorious for throwing acid into the faces of western-dressed women and even murdering a fellow student at Kabul University, yet he received the majority of materiel support from the CIA-led mujahideen campaign against the Soviets.  Indeed, an unpublished report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in 2012 reportedly named over 500 figures who have been associated with atrocities.  The document was never published due to push back from powerful Afghan political figures.

One undeniable truth about Dostum is that he is staunchly anti-Taliban.  He has personally led recent offensives against the mounting Taliban offensive in the north.  While we may not always agree with his methods and means - we must recognize the fact he is a vital component in the fight against the Taliban - and one that we cannot afford to alienate as we continue to contribute forces to this fight. Dostum has been described as the “quintessential warlord” – the definition of quintessential is “of the pure and essential essence of something” – and in a land of ethnic divisions and tribal tensions such as Afghanistan – Dostum should also be regarded as one of our quintessential allies in defeating the Taliban.

Contemporary Afghan scholars find ourselves much in the same situation as many “Game of Thrones” fans.  We do not know what will happen next.   The situation is tenuous.  And much like many characters and factions in the show, let us hope that the State Department has indeed chosen their faction wisely, because, unlike the television show, it will have very real and profound consequences on the lives of millions.

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