File photo of Afghan prime minister Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been accused of ordering his bodyguards to kidnap, torture and rape a political rival. Caren Firouz/Reuters
KABUL // It’s unusual for the vice president of a country to live under house arrest, or to be cloaked in rumours about his imminent dispatch into exile.
But such is the case with former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum who, controversially, is now the vice-president of Afghanistan.
Mr Dostum, 62, has been accused of ordering his bodyguards to kidnap, torture and rape a political rival. Although he denies those charges, his residence in Kabul has been surrounded by security forces since February, restricting his movements.
In the continuing investigation, Mr Dostum’s bodyguards have appeared in court to testify. But their employer continues to stay out of public sight, even amid reports that president Ashraf Ghani may be under pressure to exile him to Turkey.
Mr Dostum’s case is emblematic of a larger problem in Afghanistan, in which leaders with long records of human rights abuses have been rehabilitated into the political sphere – to the dismay of most citizens, who would rather they were prosecuted.
In March, the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar received a pardon from the government and threw himself into politics.
Mr Dostum, a leader of the country’s minority Uzbek community, ruled over northern Afghanistan for decades, thanks in part to his ability to reinvent himself, switching from pro-Communist union leader, to ally of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s mujahideen, and finally to a partner of US forces against the Taliban.
He also had a reputation for cruelty. He is said to have ordered tanks to be driven over the legs of his captured enemies. In 2001, he was accused of suffocating hundreds of Taliban prisoners after locking them up in shipping containers.
Mr Dostum entered politics soon after, but his volatile past made him a target of at least one assassination attempt. He lived in Turkey intermittently, returning to Afghanistan permanently only in 2009.
In 2014, Mr Ghani named Mr Dostum vice president.
But as the latest charges against Mr Dostum have proven, violence continues to follow him. Simultaneously, he is also politically influential, making it difficult for the government to arrest him and put him on trial.
In the north, protests have greeted the investigations against Mr Dostum and his bodyguards.
Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst, said Mr Dostum is “trying to make a big coalition of non-Pashtun tribes in the north”.
These tribes differ in their politics, which weaken the government’s hold on the region, he said. “From these differences, the Taliban is benefiting. They are capturing districts.”
Mr Dostum’s role in attempting to unite is thus valuable for Mr Ghani’s government.
Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj, a spokesman for Mr Dostum’s Jumbash Party, denied the former warlord is under house arrest, or that he may be exiled to Turkey. But Mr Dostum’s son Bator has had to take over aspects of the Jumbash leader’s work.
The younger Mr Dostum recently travelled to the US on behalf of his father who was banned from entering the country.
Mr Tahyanj said he held key meetings with an adviser of president Donald Trump and another with a potential American ambassador to Afghanistan.
The protests in the north began after his trip to the US, and they were conducted “under the leadership of Bator Dostum”, Mr Tahyanj said. “The government must listen to the demands of his people. If they don’t, the people who [elected this] government with their votes can collapse the government too.”
Mr Dostum’s support base, particularly among Uzbeks, is undeniably large, said Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.
“At the end of April, we saw that there were large protests, of up to 2,000 people, organised by the office of Mr Dostum,” Mr Gopalaswamy said. “He was able to secure votes among Uzbeks for Ashraf Ghani in 2014.”
Nevertheless, Mr Ghani is treating the accusations against Mr Dostum seriously, said Mr Gopalaswamy.
“[Mr Ghani] believes that the case will undergo proper judicial review, to reveal that no one is above the law,” he said. “I’ve seen reports where Mr Ghani is frustrated with officials defying the law with impunity, and that this particular case is seen as a ‘make-or-break’ obstacle to the administration.”
The shifts in Afghanistan’s geopolitics over the past decade may also work against Mr Dostum, Mr Muzhda the political analyst observed.
“Dostum has committed too many crimes – this isn’t the first crime he committed,” he said, referring to the allegations of torture and rape.
“But the Americans were supporting him earlier, therefore he never faced a court. Now that the US support [to him] has ended, he may face a court or be exiled to Turkey.”