- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan Between avalanches in the Salang Valley and gangs of Kalashnikov-toting bandits, traveling the Salang Road during the day is not for the timid during the night, even the brave avoid it. But if one has to go, and one has to go by road at night, the best way to travel is with a personal letter from Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum guaranteeing safe passage.
Even in a country with a 70 percent illiteracy rate, it is enough to brandish a letter and say Gen. Dostum's name to breeze through checkpoints and stop potential robbers. So who is this warlord some call, "the Butcher of Mazar"?
A 90-minute interview provides some clues.
Not only is Gen. Dostum a massive man who can eat 12 chickens and drink more than two quarts of vodka at one sitting, he is perhaps the greatest challenge to interim leader Hamid Karzai's power in Kabul.
From a minor commander to a security chief in the former government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gen. Dostum's rise in power has as much to do with timely changes of allegiance as it has to do with combat skills.
Over the past 20 years of war in Afghanistan, he has switched sides often. Yet, however uncertain his loyalties, he commands unflinching obedience from his troops: Those deemed insubordinate are tied to tank tracks and crushed to death.
Asked about his reputation for torturing his own men, Gen. Dostum replied: "People don't like Uzbeks, so they say bad things about us." While that may be true, widows of several of his own soldiers claim Gen. Dostum's commanders tortured and killed their husbands for offenses like falling asleep on watch.
No fewer than five women, who asked not to be identified, say Gen. Dostum raped them on more than one occasion. When questioned, he flatly denied the claims, asking: "How could a man who loves his people violate them so?"
A correspondent from the San Francisco Chronicle indicated she had been asked to leave Mazar-e-Sharif. She was investigating accusations of intimidation and rape by Gen. Dostum's men in Mazar. Asked about this, the general replied: "I have never heard of such a thing." The woman reporter had already left the city under threat of death.
(The story filed by the San Francisco Chronicle reporter appears elsewhere on this page).
But despite the harsh discipline enforced on his troops, the people of Mazar-e-Sharif like him because he takes a distinctly secular approach in an overwhelmingly religious state. Where he holds sway, men and women are allowed to mix freely.
He sounds like an enlightened man when he says: "The first, best religion is humanity; those in the past were against humanity."
This contrasts with screams from his compound that can be heard more than 300 yards away. One of Gen. Dostum's soldiers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explains: "Mohammed was caught doing something he shouldn't have, and now they are skinning him alive."
Perhaps religion is unimportant to Gen. Dostum because he has big plans.
A visit to his compound on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif near an electricity plant reveals a small surprise the leaders of the fifty or so soldiers guarding the grounds, and the only ones allowed to carry weapons inside his offices appear to be members of the Russian special forces.
The armed men are not talkative. But when they speak Russian, it is with a Moscow accent, and their English is more fluent than that of Gen. Dostum's interpreters. Some are apparently Orthodox Christians. New Russian military equipment is stacked inside the compound.
Asked if he was importing arms from Iran, Gen. Dostum gave a huge belly-laugh, saying, "Why I import arms from Iran? Does appear I guns or soldiers need?"
But his status may be about to change. Now that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has all but ended and the future looks brighter with the promise of international aid from the Tokyo summit, people in Mazar-e-Sharif are beginning to see the need for an educated man, not a warlord shrouded in rumors of a bloody past, to govern the country.
As a result, dozens of Tajiks, Hazaras and even Uzbeks in Mazar-e-Sharif favor Ufta Ata, leader of the local group of Jamiat-I-Islam the national Islamic party formerly led by the late Ahmed Shah Masood.
When asked if he ever thought he would become a general, Gen. Dostum said that even when he was a young boy, his elders saw him as a future military leader "because of my good heart and hard work."
It must be galling to Gen. Dostum that after 20 years of war, a civilian leads Afghanistan.
When asked what he thought of Mr. Karzai, Gen. Dostum replied: "He has five more months to prove his strength. If he cannot prove himself by then, there will be a new leader. And maybe the north will once again come to the rescue of the rest of Afghanistan."


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