Recently a delegation of Uzbeks, Turko-Mongols from the plains of northern of Afghanistan, came to visit my wife Feyza and myself in our home in Boston. They represented the aq saqals (gray beards or elders) of many prominent Uzbek villages and clans and were furious. As we talked over Turkish tea and biscuits they explained why they had come to me all the way from the plains around the ancient shrine town of Mazar i Sharif for help in reaching the U.S State Department and a journalist for The New York Times named Matthew Rosenberg with their frustrations.
It all began on April 25th 2016 when Matthew Rosenberg wrote an article in The New York Times titled "Afghanistan's Vice President is Barred From Entering the U.S." which stated that Afghanistan's First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, "has been accused of war crimes and is not welcome in the United States." This was in reference to an effort by Dostum to come to the US, meet with congressmen and officials in the Pentagon, and give a speech at the United Nations.
Rosenberg then went on to explain why Dostum was denied access to the United States as follows "Mr. Dostum's ascent to the Vice Presidency of Afghanistan, despite his past, exemplifies a central American failure in a war it is now fighting for the 15th year. In its effort to defeat the Taliban, the United States has built and paid for a government that is filled with the kind of warlords and powerbrokers whose predatory ways help give rise to the [Taliban] insurgent movement in the 1990's, and whom American officials say pose as much of a threat to the civility of Afghanistan as the insurgents themselves."
Rosenberg further wrote of the paramount Uzbek leader "For years, there have been broad agreements among American officials about Mr. Dostum, who stands apart for his brutal past even when measured against alleged war crimes and misdeeds of many of the people the United States has relied on during the war in Afghanistan." The extraordinary article ends by noting "The State Department has called him the 'quintessential warlord'."
Rosenberg then mentioned Dostum, the "quintessential warlord's" alleged war crime, that his troops killed Taliban prisoners of war in November 2001. There have been rumors swirling ever since the early day of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that there was a hidden massacre of "thousands" of Taliban by General Dostum's ethnic Uzbek troops, but there has been no investigation to date.
The closest thing to an investigation was actually carried out by myself in the summers of 2003 and 2005 when I was given unprecedented access to General Dostum's realm in the deserts and plains of Northern Afghanistan. I spent two summers with Dostum extensively traveling across his territory interviewing ethnic Pashtuns in the north (the ethnic group that formed the Taliban), local Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen villagers, newly liberated women, Dostum's anti-Soviet mujahideen enemies, local leaders, and of course General Dostum himself.
Since then, I have spent years chronicling Dostum's rise to power and his extraordinary career as an anti-mujahideen leader and an anti-Taliban commander. For this reason I was well known to the Uzbeks who came to visit me in Boston seeking help.
In the process of carrying out this research I interviewed U.S. Special Force Green Berets and CIA Special Activities Division Operatives who rode with Dostum's cavalry forces during the extraordinary horse mounted campaign against the Taliban in October and November of 2001 that brought Dostum to the world's attention (this campaign led to the toppling of the Taliban regime). In addition, I also interviewed journalists who were embedded with Dostum during the 2001 mountain campaign and even dozens of Taliban prisoners of war who were transported by Dostum to his prison in his base at Sherbergen. These were the very Taliban who fought alongside those Taliban who are said to have died in the "thousands" in some hidden massacre carried out by Dostum and were a unique source.
I intensively explored all of these edgy issues in my recent book The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, The Afghan Warrior Who Led U.S. Special Forces to Topple the Taliban. What emerged from my interviews with all the above was a clear and systematic refutation of the unsubstantiated claims that The New York Times has repeatedly made of a large-scale massacre of Taliban during 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom at the hands of Dostum's pro-American Northern Alliance Uzbek militia. What also emerged from my interviews was a picture of a three-dimensional man and his people whose objectives in Afghanistan closely align with those of the Americans and the Afghan government that has been constructed since 2001. Most importantly, my research shattered many of the myths around Dostum, this larger than life ethnic leader/military commander who fought across the battlefields of Afghanistan for 25 years before becoming the first Vice President.
What follows is a brief history of Dostum that brings this much aligned Afghan Uzbek leader to life as something more than a one dimensional warlord caricature and directly challenges the myth propagated by Rosenberg in the New York Times that Dostum's "predatory ways help give rise to the [Taliban] insurgent movement in the 1990's."
Journey to the Realm of a Warlord.
In July 2003, I flew into Kabul with the intention of investigating the life, legend, and fierce reputation of General Dostum. I had read many hyped reports in the media about Dostum that had made him appear to be something between a neo Genghis Khan and a Klingon villain from Star Trek. Dostum's ogreish reputation, however, set off my commonsense-meter (one reporter claimed Dostum's troops were "skinning someone alive" outside his room when he visited Dostum). I had seen enough journalists who traveled to northern Afghanistan to meet Dostum vying to outdo themselves with increasingly outlandish stories about this man who was simplistically defined as a warlord and wanted to meet him myself. It was with the objective of cutting through some of the hype and understanding who he was as a man that I contacted Dostum's officials and arranged to join a convoy of Uzbeks making its way from Kabul over the mighty Hindu Kush Mountains of central Afghanistan to the plains of the north historically known as Turkistan.
It was with a great sense of anticipation that I arrived in Dostum's compound in the northern shrine town of Mazar-i- Sharif after my long journey. There I met with Dostum on the balcony of his compound as he met with tribal leaders and military commanders and convinced him to let me do an embed with him to explore the issue of the accusations of a hidden war crime and his own remarkable life story.
Over the next few weeks I extensively interviewed Dostum (something Rosenberg did not do and none of the reporters at the New York Times who have been attacking him for the 2001 "massacre" over the years have bothered to do). He patiently told me the story of his rise to power and explained that during the Soviet invasion he led the Turko-Mongol Uzbeks of Northern Afghanistan in fighting for the Afghan Communist Government against the Islamist mujahideen anti-Soviet rebels. Dostum explained his rationale as follows "The mujahideen were trying to enforce strict Sharia [Islamic] Law while the Soviets and Afghan [Communist] government were building clinics for women and schools and were trying to weaken the power of the fundamentalist mullahs [priests]. They brought modernity, the mujahideen wanted to force us back in time. We also saw the model of how the Soviets had modernized Uzbekistan and given them their ethnic rights. They promised us the same thing and gave us new opportunities and rights that the ruling Pashtun elites had not over the previous hundred years (i.e. since the Uzbeks were brutally conquered by the Afghans/Pashtuns and forcefully brought into Afghanistan].
As Dostum's advisers and numerous Uzbek elders looked on and chimed in in support, Dostum continued. "In the mid 1980s I raised an Uzbek force that rose to 50,000 men and we fought for our own ethnic group against the jihad of the Pashtuns and Tajiks. My troops even fought against the Arab mujahideen volunteers, including Bin Laden's fighters, in the southeast. I have always been consistent in fighting against those who wage jihad. I always fought for secularism and my people, whereas you Americans sponsored jihad warriors like the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmayatar in the 1980s. Now you are fighting against him since he has joined the Taliban insurgency."
I winced at Dostum's claim knowing full well that Hekmayatar was known as the "acid thrower." He and his fanatical Pashtun mujahideen threw acid in the faces of brave women who dared to walk around unveiled in the capital Kabul before being added to the CIA's payroll in the 1980s.
Dostum continued, "When the war against the communists ended in 1992 and Afghanistan fell apart I created my own realm in the north where I ran the only functioning university in Afghanistan that allowed women to attend. We had a liberal free realm in the north, while in the [Pashtun] south mujahideen fanatics preyed on the common people. Many refugees fled from the south to my protected lands."
I recalled that Dostum had indeed run a stable mini-state in the north from 1992 to 1998, while in the south the mujahideen warlords (whom Rosenberg mistakenly conflated with Dostum) preyed on their own Pashtun people.
Dostum was clearly nostalgic of the days when he successfully ruled the north and kept the peace. Many people, including Rosenberg, who have not mastered Afghan history, think that all Afghan warlords tormented and preyed on the people during the anarchic 1990s. But in the non-Pashtun north, the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups were successfully ruled by their own moderate leaders.
Dostum's tone then changed as he recalled his greatest defeat, "But then the Taliban appeared from the south as a response to the chaos caused by the predatory Pashtun mujahideen. We fought for years to keep them out of the north. In 1998 I was finally defeated by the Taliban who had Pakistani and Arab assistance, whereas we received no help from America in our struggle to maintain our enclave in the north."
In other words, Dostum actually fought for years to keep the Taliban out of his stable realm, he in no way shape or form helped create them by his activities as Rosenberg erroneously stated. I recalled that the Uzbek leader had fled to Turkey after the Taliban conquered his secular realm in the plains of northern Afghanistan and enforced their Medieval form of Islam on his people.
Dostum's narrative flew in the face of the historically revisionist story writtenby Matthew Rosenberg in The New York Times. Recall that in his account, Matthew Rosenberg stated, "The United States has built and paid for a government that is filled with the kinds of warlords and powerbrokers whose predatory ways help give rise to the insurgent movement in the 1990's." Here Rosenberg is referring to the Taliban of the 1990s as "insurgents" (they were actually more like a conquering Medieval horde that outnumbered their more moderate ethnic enemies in the north than "insurgents") and he is implying that Dostum's "predatory ways" helped give rise to Taliban "insurgency." This contrafactual narrative ignores the fact that for years Dostum was a bulwark fighting against the Taliban insurgents in the 1990's. While there were predatory mujahideen Pashtun mujahideen warlords in the south who preyed on the people and helped give rise to the Pashtun Taliban, Dostum's northern realm was peaceful and secure under his rule.
Rosenberg also stated that the U.S. State Department considers Dostum to be a "quintessential warlord." This glib statement overlooks the fact that Dostum is/was more than just a warlord, he is the paramount leader of his ethnic group and his power rests upon his protection of this group in the internal struggles of Afghanistan. Most notably, Dostum led the Uzbeks in fighting against Tajik and Pashtun mujahideen (i.e. jihad warriors) in the 80's and against the Pashtun Taliban in the 90's. After defending his people in the 1980s, he liberated and empowered his people when Afghanistan fell apart in the 90s and they respect and love him for that.
In my own trips across northern Afghanistan I had found that Dostum was called Baba, or Father, by the Uzbeks who saw him as one of their own who had risen from poverty and fought for their interests. Throughout the north, Uzbeks identified with him, hung his picture on their car windows, sewed carpets with his face on them, and appeared in rallies of tens of thousands to enthusiastically greet him when he arrived in their villages or cities. Describing him in reductionist/un-nuanced terms as a "warlord" overlooks the deep roots of support he has among his own qaum (ethnic group).
But on with Dostum's remarkable story. Having been defeated and exiled to Turkehy by the Taliban in 1998, Dostum returned to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in April of 2001 to lead his people in waging a lonely guerilla campaign against the Taliban rulers from the remote mountains of northern Afghanistan. Long before the Americans arrived in Afghanistan Dostum was fighting an insurgent war against the ruling Taliban and the Al Qaeda O55 brigade, which fought alongside the Taliban (i.e. he was the insurgent, not the Taliban who preyed on his people).
When 9/11 happened Dostum quickly offered his services to the Americans as a 'boots on the ground' proxy ally and promised to pray for America's dead. An elite Green Beret "A Team" and several CIA Special Activity Division Operatives were subsequently infiltrated into the mountains to fight alongside his rebels in the mountains. Dostum then boldly lead his 2,000 horsemen alongside the horse-mounted American special operatives in a spectacular campaign that broke out of the mountains and seized the holy town of Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2001.
This was the first victory in what had become known as the War on Terror. All Afghan ethnic groups believe that the possessor of this ancient shrine of Mazar has the mandate to rule Afghanistan. This symbolic victory lead to the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime and no man was more responsible for this remarkable achievement (that stunned Central Command which was planning for a full scale invasion in the spring) than General Dostum.
After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Dostum was largely left out of power by the new Tajik-Pashtun dominated government. On occasion there were tensions, but he never revolted. Dostum was furious that some of his fanatical enemies from the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad had been included in the government, including such warlords Abu Sayyaf, a hardcore Islamist who was responsible for first inviting Bin Laden to Afghanistan in the 1990s and members of Hekmatyar the "acid throwers" jihadist party, but he accepted the new order of things.
But fascinatingly, Dostum always maintained a strong admiration for the Americans as I saw for myself during my visits. When I visited Dostum in his compound in his home base of Sheberghan, he proudly showed me a Sig pistol given to him by Central Command head General Tommy Franks and a plaque given to him by a Green Beret A Team making him an honorary member. Dostum was tremendously honored by his gifts and also showed me the horse ridden by the A Team's legendary commander, Captain Mark Nutsch. He called the American Green Berets his "blood brothers" and promised to help fight for America if they ever needed him again. In the entrance to his hometown in Sherbergan he also had a billboard erected thanking the American military for liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban with Nutsch's picture on it. This at a time when the Pashtun Taliban were burning US-constructed schools in the south and enforcing shariah law in their shadow courts.
In my journeys across the northern territories of the Uzbeks, I also found that Dostum had established schools for girls and in his compound in the evenings he met with female politicians and financially supported them to run for parliament. He positioned himself as a strong supporter of women's rights and created a television channel, Afghanistan's first, Aina, which broadcast a daily fare of secular programs. .
After all this one can imagine Dostum's shock when he was denied his dreamed of chance to come to the U.S. to meet with congressmen such as Dana Rohrabacher who support him and members of the Pentagon who know how important he is a staunch anti-Taliban field commander in the strategic north. When the news reached Dostum and his people that he was being denied a visa in April of this year from the very country that he admired so much he and they were deeply wounded.
As the word spread among Dostum's qaum (tribe) the Uzbeks that their Baba (Father) had been officially rejected by his American allies, there was tremendous anger and a widespread sense that their leader's nam (honor or reputation) was being dishonored. Millions of Uzbeks who saw America as their chief ally in the war against the Taliban could not understand why their beloved leader, who had fought so hard alongside the Americans to defeat the common enemy, was being humiliated and disrespected.
Despite all of these facts, and despite the fact that the Uzbeks are a primary bulwark against the encroaching Taliban in Northern Afghanistan, and the fact that Dostum himself has personally led local troops in combat as recently as this summer against the Taliban, he is widely defined by the State Department not as a vice president but rather as a predatory warlord. To compound matters, the New York Times, which has published several articles critical of Dostum that help reinforce the State Department's skewed perspective, has yet to actually interview the Afghan Vice President on these issues. This reflects poorly on a newspaper that prides itself on putting journalists on the ground in various warzones to do first hand reporting, instead of doing hack job writing from the safety of their desks in New York.
In summary, the State Department and The New York Times humiliated Dostum and his pro-American people. Their representatives, who visited me in Boston, were angry at both the newspaper and our government. They asked me to send a message to both expressing their frustration and here it is: As the Taliban march in the north from Kunduz in the east to Faryab in the west in an increasingly aggressive attempt to conquer the Uzbek-dominated lands of the north again, it is important that the State Department officials dealing with Afghanistan get their hands on the pulse of this complex region and stop antagonizing major pro-American, moderate figures like Dostum and his Uzbek people.
The starting point for cutting through the myths around Dostum would be to carry out an investigation of the alleged massacre of "thousands of Taliban" and for reporters like Matthew Rosenberg to actually fly to Kabul, meet the Vice President and interview him personally. Dostum has repeatedly expressed his support for such and investigation because he believes it will exonerate him and is eager to do an interview with the New York Times.
Warning though Matthew Rosenberg, should you accept Dostum's invitation you will have to travel to the war-ravaged north where he is currently leading local Uzbek forces in a desperate battle against the Taliban, the very enemy he has devoted his life to fighting for two decades. Such a journey would per force involve familiarizing yourself with Afghanistan's complex ethnic history and also involve mastering the difference between Pashtun mujahideen warlords (whose predatory actions in the south led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s) and moderate ethnic leaders in the north who successfully ran their realms during this period. Most importantly, it would involve meeting the man who was fighting the Taliban "insurgents" long before America came to him seeking help in 2001 and then declared him persona non grata.
Mr. Rosenberg if you are reading this, I can arrange to have you meet the vice president and prominent aq saqal elders any time, they are eager to meet you and share their story. You can also Facebook 'Friend' Dostum here and see images of him leading local Uzbek militias in combat against the Taliban taken last week.
For my own photos and videos of Dostum and his realm, including schools for girls that he had built, see my website here.
Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and worked for the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center in Afghanistan and for the U.S. Army's Information Operations team in Kabul.
Many thanks to Kyle J Zacharewicz for work in proofing and researching for this article.