Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: The Last Warlord

Book Review – The Last Warlord
By Dr Hamid Hussain

 The Last Warlord by Brian Glyn Williams is the life story of Abdul Rashid Dostum; a former Afghan warlord and current First Vice President of Afghanistan. Dostum is an excellent case study specimen for any researcher who wants to understand the sanguine history of Afghanistan of the last three decades. No actor has performed so many roles even in movies which Dostum has done in real life. A plumber, oil and gas rig worker, wrestler, meteoric rise from a petty local militia commander to a general commanding a Corps, warlord, deputy defense minister, presidential candidate, chief of staff to President of Afghanistan and now First Vice President of Afghanistan.

 Brian’s work gives a friendly account of Dostum’s life and author admits that ‘he might be able to help Dostum get his story out’. Many exaggerated stories about the venality of Dostum are given a thorough scrubbing. The final story which emerges presents Dostum as a moderate secular leader who is trying to get fair share for his ethnic Uzbek community in Afghanistan. This is only partly true and there are hundred shades of grey.

Dostum started his career as oil and gas worker and later joined Afghan army. He was affiliated with the Parcham (Banner) faction of Afghan Communists. He served with 444 Commando unit. In 1970s and 80s, Dostum fought against rebels (Mujahedeen) as local militia commander. He was a successful commander and soon his command rapidly expanded from a battalion (kandak) to a division (53rd Division) and finally a Corps (7th Corps). He led his tough Uzbek fighters called Jowzjani Militia (called Gilamjam or carpet thieves by adversaries) from the front in battlefields all over Afghanistan. Dostum was sent to every front when fighting got tough and he proved to be an able commander in countless battles. He was known for frontal assaults that resulted in heavy casualties and in the long run caused war weariness among his fellow Uzbeks.

Dostum was no boy scout but his allies and opponents were also not representatives of Jeffersonian democracy. Almost all were unscrupulous rascals obsessed with power with no consideration for their countrymen. They happily destroyed every standing building of their country looting even the furniture of schools of their children as war booty. They destroyed more mosques in thirty years than all the foreigners combined who passed through their lands over centuries. All were responsible for unspeakable atrocities against their own people killing and maiming hundreds of thousands and raping boys and girls. This is the most shameful chapter of Afghan history which every Afghan conveniently forgets.

Outsiders are perplexed at the most intriguing factor of shifting alliances of Afghan clients. Dostum is no different than any other Afghan leader and master of byzantine intrigues. In 1998, Dostum entertained an American delegation in his fiefdom to be followed by a delegation of Iranian intelligence agents. He fought alongside communists and Soviet army considered his men as the most reliable partners in fight against Mujahedeen. In 1992, when President Najibullah became orphan after the cessation of Soviet aid, Dostum join hands with Ahmad Shah Massoud to overthrow Najibullah and then fought against Gulbadin Hikmatyar. When he was not given a seat at Kabul, he waited for the right time to strike. Two years later, he joined hands with Hikmatyar to try to overthrow President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government and fought against Massoud. For a short while, he rented his air force to Taliban when they were ousting warlord of Herat Ismail Khan. Later, he tried to stop the rising tide of Taliban in the north and after betrayal of some fellow Uzbeks, found refuge in Turkey. After September 11, 2001, he rushed back home and with the help of a handful CIA paramilitary officers and Special Forces troops was instrumental in rapid rollover of Taliban authority all over Afghanistan. Dostum was used and discarded and he in turn used and discarded many patrons including Russia, United Sates, Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkey.

 Americans later tried to put former warlords in the pen removing them from powerful positions and marginalizing them. However, local power plays dictated differently. Americans wanted Dostum away from Afghanistan during 2009 Presidential elections and asked Turkish officials to keep him in Turkey for an extended exile. Dostum was cooling his heels as Chief of Staff to the President but effectively under house arrest and later enjoying Turkish hospitality. President Hamid Karzai needed Uzbek votes for 2009 elections and despite warnings from the Americans, Karzai brought Dostum back and got his support. The same act was repeated in 2014, when Ashraf Ghani nominated Dostum as his running mate.

To Dostum’s credit at least he accepts his own role in the painful recent past of his country. He told Brian that “It’s time for a new generation who don’t have blood on their hands to build our nation. Perhaps it is fitting that I am my people’s last warlord”. One only wish that his words prove be true as Afghans need a peaceful future. However, current trends suggest that a rocky road is ahead for Afghanistan. Recent ingress of Taliban in northern Afghanistan forced Dostum to change his suit for chapan. When United States started to wind down its operations in Afghanistan, Dostum started looking for other sponsors. He is master of these maneuvers. In October 2014, he quietly visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan but made no significant headway. In early October 2015, he visited Moscow and Chechnya. A bit strange itinerary for Dostum but there is reasons for the trip. Head of Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov has established himself as an intermediary between Moscow and Muslim world. In addition, he is positioning himself to be a partner in fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL); new international villain of the Game of Thrones. Dostum is also presenting himself as a reliable partner against emerging threat of ISIL franchise in Afghanistan. In view of deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and uncertain future, Russia is hedging its bets and planning for a northern buffer zone under a strong man like Dostum to keep fires of extremism away from its borders. The likely instrument will be strengthening of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and nudging them to contribute resources and supplying some heavy weapons to Afghan national army especially strengthening helicopter forces. Russia is also reinforcing its 201st Motorized Rifle Division based in Tajikistan and strengthening a border task force. One sincerely hopes that Dostum lives to see the new generation of Afghans as peace makers and not dying as a warlord on the killing fields of Afghanistan.

 Brian Glyn Williams. The Last Warlord. (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013)

Hamid Hussain

December 05, 2015

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