Afghan Vice President’s Return Is Thwarted as Plane Is Turned Back

Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, center, in Kabul in 2014. Mr. Dostum, an Afghan vice president, has built an alliance of politicians united in anger against President Ashraf Ghani. CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — During nearly two months of de facto exile in Turkey, Afghanistan’s embattled vice president, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, hastily formed a new coalition of the discontented. On Monday, he tried to return to Afghanistan, to add to the woes of his own struggling president.

But as hundreds of supporters waited late into the night at an airport in the country’s north, the small private plane carrying Mr. Dostum, an ex-warlord accused of torturing and sexually assaulting a political rival, was denied permission to land on orders from the central government, according to several Afghan and Western officials.

The episode is likely to deepen Afghanistan’s already turbulent political crisis, testing the limits of a politician who has been volatile in the past and who has threatened to turn his wrath against President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which he helped bring to power but which he now accuses of marginalizing him.

“There were about 500 to 1,000 people waiting for him, and we waited for three hours,” said Raees Abdul Khaliq, a member of the Balkh provincial council who was at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to greet Mr. Dostum on Monday night. “The central government, against all the laws of Afghanistan and the world, against the fact that the president cannot rule an ordinary citizen — let alone the vice president — a criminal until proven by a court, told the plane not to land.”

The episode was confirmed by one of Mr. Dostum’s senior commanders, as well as officials close to Atta Muhammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh Province — a onetime rival of Mr. Dostum who recently joined his new alliance of politicians united in anger at the coalition government headed by Mr. Ghani. The officials, who, like others quoted for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that after nearly two hours of confusion, the plane turned back and was believed to have landed in Turkmenistan.

On Tuesday morning, however, the offices of both Mr. Dostum and Mr. Noor issued statements denying that the incident had occurred. Mr. Noor’s office said the plane had been carrying Turkish “special guests” of the governor, not the vice president, and that because of technical difficulties it had landed in Turkmenistan before entering Afghan airspace.

A senior government official, however, said officials in Kabul had become suspicious of the small plane, which was said to be carrying seven businessmen. The authorities asked the plane to land in Kabul for processing before going to Mazar-i-Sharif, and its reluctance to comply confirmed the suspicion that Mr. Dostum was aboard, said the official.

Asif Mohmand, another member of the provincial council in Balkh, who was not at the airport but spoke to people who had been there, said that NATO forces in Mazar-i-Sharif had denied the plane permission to land after consulting with the central government.

“The foreigners said, ‘It’s impossible — you should get in touch with Kabul, once they O.K. it, we will welcome him.’ But the central government asked the plane to land in Kabul and not Mazar, then after much commotion Mr. Dostum landed in Turkmenistan.”

A Western official said Mr. Noor, while waiting at the airport and trying to calm the crowd, had called the commander of the coalition forces in the north seeking permission for Mr. Dostum to land. The governor was told that the decision was up to the central government, not the coalition forces, the official said.

Mr. Dostum has been in conflict with his own government for months, most recently over a criminal investigation into accusations that he and his bodyguards kidnapped and sexually assaulted a political rival. Even before those allegations, there had been friction as the general lashed out at Mr. Ghani, accusing him of monopolizing power.

Mr. Dostum’s new political alliance, which was announced last month in Ankara, has a strong base in Afghanistan’s north. Two other members of the coalition, Mr. Noor and Hajji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the deputy chief executive of the Afghan government, have made Mazar-i-Sharif a base for venting their anger at Mr. Ghani. The central government appears to have feared that Mr. Dostum was returning to Afghanistan to consolidate that coalition.

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