Return of exiled Afghan vice president divides country

Supporters have hailed his comeback but others are dismayed by a lack of justice

In this photo taken on July 22, 2018, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum (2nd R) arrives at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The death toll from a suicide attack near Kabul international airport has risen to 23, the health ministry said July 23, with an AFP driver among the dead. At least 107 others were wounded in the powerful explosion on July 22, which happened as scores of people were leaving the airport after welcoming home Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum from exile.

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The return of controversial Afghan Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum on Sunday from his self-imposed exile in Turkey has created a political rift among Afghan citizens: those who support his comeback and those angry at his escape from justice.

While many have hailed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s move to negotiate the amicable arrival of Gen Dostum, one that could reduce opposition against the ruling National Unity Government (NUG), many others are dismayed about the lack of judicial process in the case against him and his men.

The former Uzbek warlord was forced to leave the country for more than a year amid allegations that he and his men abused and tortured a political foe.

“This will shake the credibility of the NUG to deal with warlords and bring justice to victims,” said Sulaiman, an Afghan conflict analyst. Sulaiman, who like many Afghan only goes by one name, fears that this move could “strengthen other warlords" to act against the government.

Yet, others like Ejaz Malikzada, a political activist and a member of the Afghanistan Green Trends movement, an organisation led by former Afghan spy chief Amrullah Saleh, see the return of Gen Dostum as a move towards bringing stability to the volatile situation in the north, as well as within the NUG.

“Gen Dostum is an Uzbek unifier and a force in the north,” he said, pointing to how the vice president’s speech on Sunday ceased protests in the north that had been ongoing for the past three weeks.

President Ghani recently initiated a campaign against strongmen and local militiamen accused of abuses of power and human right violations. The arrest of militia commander Nizamuddin Qaisari, a figure loyal to Gen Dostum, led to widespread protests in the north that eventually turned into a rallying call for the return of the vice president who had left the country last year to escape the charges of torture and abuse made by his former ally, Ahmad Ischi.

In agreement with Mr Malikzada was US Army General John Nicholson, commander of the Nato-led Resolute Support mission.

“With respect to First Vice President Dostum returning, from a security perspective, we hope this leads to a greater stability in the north-west part of the country," the commander told local media on Monday.

"But with respect to other dimensions, it is a matter for the Afghan government,” he said.

While Gen Nicholson may have refrained from commenting on it, Gen Dostum’s much celebrated red carpet welcome has left many in Afghanistan wondering about the future of his case and the accusations of human rights abuses leveled against him.


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President Ghani's move to crackdown on local power brokers was hailed by many, but the eventual return of Gen Dostum has disappointed some of his supporters.

“President Ghani is the first Afghan leader to take steps against warlordism,” Sulaiman points out, adding that the Taliban often overpowered the warlords who controlled parts of Afghanistan. “However, Mr Ghani has failed Mr Ishchi and countless other victims of Dostum. He played politics and failed again. A government based on injustice, will never serve it's people justice.”

Malikzada, on the other hand, urged Afghans to look at the larger picture and beyond the accusations of abuse.

“Of course, allegations against him must be investigated, he and others must face the law and if convicted, serve the time for their crimes. However, stakeholders must also consider what is good for the stability of the country,” he suggests, adding that security and instability in the north had deteriorated over the years and leaders like Gen Dostum were seen not only as the line of defence against the spread of terror groups, but also as the strongest voices against insurgency.

“Faryab had recently become an ISIS stronghold and we seem to have forgotten that. The Taliban too have been gaining momentum in those provinces; but all of our attention is on Dostum and Qaisari and other strongmen.. who have, despite their shortcomings, been a strong arm of the government as well as have contributed to Mr Ghani’s campaign,” he said.

“So in arresting or exiling them, what people see is another agenda for the president to consolidate power and sideline ethnicity,” he claimed.

Matters of ethnic conflict have long since been a part of Afghanistan’s politics. While there is no consensus on the majority ethnic group and with no credible population data, it is largely believed that the Pashtun are in larger numbers and smaller ethnic groups — Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks — have often accused them of discrimination.

“There are many other individuals that have violated human rights and contributed to the instability of the country and threatened the national security of Afghanistan, but they have been left out of this crackdown. The government is only going after key allies of the national unity government,” Malikzada said.

He advised the government to consider the repercussions of their policies on security, and the economic stability of the country. “Their actions will also have a huge impact on the coming elections and they should be careful that it does not create a crisis situation ahead of that,” he added.

Some 8.9 million Afghans, including more than three million women, are registered to vote in parliamentary and local elections on October 20 and presidential elections in 2019.

For many like Sulaiman, the crackdown on militiamen was a move forward, one that could create an environment of justice in the country. But the return of the vice president now seems like a step in the wrong direction.

“This is not democracy," he said, "and it probably never will be with the presence of warlords and foreign influence.”