A self-proclaimed “kingmaker” and bulwark against the Taliban with a penchant for creating friends out of yesterday’s foes, the colorful General Abdul Rashid Dostum, vice-president and former warlord, makes his call to arms from his imposing concrete redoubt in northern Afghanistan.
“We will clear out the Taliban from Faryab!” booms the mustached 61-year-old, a Macy’s jacket slung over his shoulders despite the sweltering heat of Jowzjan province, a stone’s throw from Turkmenistan and neighboring Faryab province where Islamist insurgents have been plaguing government forces.
Faryab is where the general has decided to make his next visit as vice-president—a position far removed from his days as a feared warlord with a reputation for brutality earned during the civil war of the 1990s. “Once I go there, God willing, I will encourage the people and they will get it back” from the hands of the Taliban, he bellows. “You will see—even the women will be throwing rocks at the Taliban. I have more than a million supporters there.”
Even among an Afghan political class that has welcomed several warlords into the fold, Dostum, the uncontested leader of the Uzbek ethnic minority, stands out for his showmanship. Guests at his headquarters in Sheberghan, the capital of Jowzjan, are greeted by two-by-three meter portraits of the general hung on the walls—as well as smaller versions on patches stitched onto the shoulders of his personal guard.
His confidence knows no bounds.
“Ghani won because of my campaigning here. There are two million votes here,” he says of his boss, President Ashraf Ghani. “I am the kingmaker.”
Asked about the offensive in Faryab, Dostum insists he had proposed the plan to the government six months earlier. But the bluster cannot conceal the undeniable political and military weight of Dostum. He hopes to leverage his popularity in the fight against the Taliban, even if it means making friends with former enemies.
Like, for example, Atta Muhammad Nur, a former warlord from the Tajik community and strongman of the province of Balkh, which neighbors Jowzjan. Allies against the Taliban during the 1990s, the fall of the regime in 2001 saw violent clashes between their forces for control of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
But they seem to have turned a new page. Dostum and the considerably less ostentatious Nur have made it a common cause to defend their northern region, according to local reports. A source close to Dostum denied an alliance, all the while confirming “a cooperation” between their forces “at a local level.”
Militarily, Dostum can count on government troops.
About 5,000 soldiers have been deployed in Faryab province, which was until recently known for its stability but has descended into fierce fighting despite nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
But in a country where a warlord is not worthy of the name without a militia, Dostum now finds himself in a bind: as vice-president he is not allowed to make use of extra-governmental forces. He insists he has 9,000 volunteers ready to fight in Faryab, but says: “But what can I do? The president does not allow it.”
Content to be a player on the national stage these days, the general complies. No militia, then—but he is happy to provide material aid to the troops. His headquarters, two hours’ drive from the frontline, houses dozens of soldiers.
“We have been waiting here since mid-July, since Eid,” says Sergeant Nassib. “We want to defend our homeland, Afghanistan,” he adds, sitting on his worn mattress. Asked what he makes of peace talks with the Taliban, which Kabul hopes will resume soon despite divisions in the movement following confirmation last week of the death of its leader Mullah Omar, Nassib becomes thoughtful. “If the Taliban want peace, we’re ready, we want peace,” he relents.