At a meeting in a villa in Kabul’s privileged neighborhood, Wazir Akbar Han in 2006, with impressive Turkmen carpets decorating the rooms, large LCD televisions and parked Lexus land cruisers in the courtyard, the glory of the villa stood in sharp contrast to the desperate poverty defining the rest of Afghanistan. While Akbar Bay, the host, was informing us about the newly founded “Türktabaran” (meaning descending from the Turks) party, he was uttering rather unpleasant words about the leader of the Uzbeks in Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Despite what Akbar Bay had to say now, the truth is that he had been Dostum’s campaign manager during the 2004 Presidential elections. Akbar Bay was once Dostum’s closest ally and the times where he would tread carefully around him were not more than a few years ago. The truth behind the shift in loyalty is that Afghan President Hamid Karzai pulled one of General Dostum’s closest aides to his ranks in order to weaken his chances of cause instability in the north. In order to dismantle Dostum’s influence and divide the Uzbeks, Karzai provided financial support to Akbar Bay to found a new party.
This is in keeping with the classic divide and rule strategy common to Pashtun rulers as a tool to weaken Turks in the north. In the 19th century, Pashtun rulers skilfully used Uzbek and Turkmen khans against each other to control what is known as Afghan Turkistan, stretching from Badaksan to Herat. Whenever one of the khans became too powerful, he was prevented from wresting further control by propping up one of his competitors instead. It is no surprise that Karzai employs his forefathers’ strategic tactics quite well. Turkey launched a new foreign policy initiative for Afghanistan and Pakistan as soon as Ahmet Davutoglu became the new Minister of Foreign Affairs in May. Parliamentary committees from both Afghanistan and Pakistan came to Ankara to meet with officials there and soon after, Davutoglu visited both countries in June. Ankara, while trying to act as an honest broker between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is at the same time aiming to unite the Turkic groups under one roof ahead of the upcoming August 20 elections. Turkey seems to be putting Dostum, who has been protected and seen as the most important card in Afghan politics, on the shelf for the moment – with possible plans to use him again in the future. In many ways, the problems in Turkey’s Afghanistan policy began with its relationship and reliance on Dostum.
The struggle for power between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and General Dostum has been simmering for the last seven years, but took a new and dangerous turn since 2007. While Karzai sought ways to get rid of Dostum, seen as “Turkey’s man” in Afghanistan once and for all, the Uzbek General has been trying to regain the power he once claimed in northern Afghanistan between 1992 and 1997. Karzai dealt the first blow by sacking all pro-Dostum bureaucrats in the north of the country. In early 2007, the pro-Dostum governor of Sibirgan, Rozmuhammed Nur, was dismissed and replaced by Pashtun Cumahan Hamdard. Hamdard, as the leader of the Pashtun minority in neighbouring Balh city, was known to have aligned himself with the Taliban during the events which resulted in Dostum fleeing to Turkey in 1997 and during which the Uzbeks came under attack. The Uzbek leader Dostum could not remain silent to Handard’s appointment to the town where he was born and raised. Thus, when pro-Dostum Uzbeks poured out onto the streets to protest Hamdard, clashes erupted for days in Sibirgan and tens of Uzbeks died as a result of the police opening fire on the demonstrators. Dostum’s men retaliated by rocket attacks on Hamdard’s residence. Some time later, when Akbar Bay tried to open the Sibirgan branch of his party, he was opposed by Dostum’s supporters. Uzbek youth set the party building on fire. Dostum raided Akbar Bay’s villa with a 70 man strong militia force, kidnapped him and his son and brought them to his house. As a response, Afghan police, under Karzai’s orders, surrounded Dostum’s house in Kabul. After hours of siege, Akbar Bay and his relatives were rescued. During the siege, General Dostum swore to police from the top floor of his three-floor house, with a whiskey bottle in his hand. Although the Afghan Office of the Attorney General issued an arrest warrant for Dostum, it was never carried out. Karzai, acutely cautious of the delicate balances in the country, was aware that if Dostum were arrested, Uzbeks would revolt and instability would arise in the north of the country.
The ‘great game’ between the United States and the Soviet Union which was played out in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which ended with US victory, gave way to a broader regional game in the 1990s. This time, the great powers decided to play the game through their regional proxies rather than participating directly. The US camp was composed of Pakistan, which supported the Taliban, Saudi Arabia and various Gulf States; while on the other hand, the Russia-led alliance was composed of Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which all supported the Northern Alliance. While every member in the American camp favoured supporting the Taliban, members of the Russian camp lent support to different group within the Northern Alliance. For example, Iran supported Shiite Hazars, Russia and Tajikistan supported Tadjiks under Mesud’s leadership and Turkey and Uzbekistan supported General Dostum. While Turkey stayed away from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, renewed interest emerged when Dostum established an autonomous government in North Afghanistan in 1992. In those days, DYP (True Path Party) MP Ayvaz Gokdemir and Turkish officials rooted in the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) initiated shuttle diplomacy between the capital of Dostum’s autonomous government, Mezar-i Serif, and Ankara. In a short period of time, Turkey opened a consulate in Mezar-i Serif, which was followed by other forms of aid. While a bloody civil war engulfed other regions of Afghanistan, and especially Kabul, Dostum’s governmental area, which encompassed 7 provinces in the north, was in relative peace and stability between 1992 and 1997. Although Dostum was involved in the conflict in Kabul for some time, he was eventually forced withdraw to the north. But while his forces were present in Kabul during 1992-1994, they had much to do with the destruction, plunder, man slaughter and rape that gripped the area, and his men hence came to be known as “gilemcem”, or carpet thief. Dostum often displayed unpredictable behaviour. While he was known to turn a blind eye to his militias plundering and raping of women and girls, he punished simple acts of theft in unthinkable ways. World renown Pakistani journalist Ahmet Rasit tells one instance in his book Taliban: “When I went to Dostum’s villa to meet with him, I saw flesh and blood in the courtyard. I asked soldiers, naively, whether a sheep was sacrificed here. They replied that General punished a soldier who had committed robbery. While Dostum and his men stood watching, the soldier was strapped to a tank’s tracks and then the tank took a stroll around the courtyard until the body of the soldier become minced meat, scattered all around.”
Although General Dostum established an autonomous government in North Afghanistan, he was not able to establish full control. Many commanders in the north refused to listen to his commands, opting to act alone. In 1997, one of his closest aides, General Melik, changed sides and allied himself with the Taliban, forcing the Uzbek leader to flee to Turkey. Although he eventually returned to Afghanistan in September 1997 and established control over the north, it did not last long and he returned to Ankara after only a couple of months. This time he stayed in Turkey until the summer of 2001.
During Dostum’s series of zigzags from Afghanistan to Turkey, Turkish officials maintained their support for him. In the 1990s, Turkey gave millions of dollars to General Dostum and his Cumbis party, but Dostum spent the money more for his personal pleasures rather than establishing a solid foundation for the type of rule that would bring Uzbeks and Turkmens together. During the 1990s, it appeared that Turkey’s interests lay in supporting Dostum, mostly because the widely held belief was that he was protecting the rights of 5 million Afghan Turks and also that he would act as a shield against the increasing Taliban threat. However, Dostum failed to deliver on both. He was neither able to resist the Taliban, nor establish a strong unity between the Turkmens and Uzbeks. Only when Dostum fled to Turkey for a second time in early 1998 did Ankara, having miscalculated the Uzbek leader’s power and failing to grasp the plots that complicate Afghanistan, realize that its policies throughout the 1990s ended up in a fiasco.
Staff with little experience on Afghanistan were responsible for managing Turkey’s Afghanistan policy in those years. During a meeting with the then Turkish Ambassador to Afghanistan in September 2006, he spoke of his personal lack of finesse on Afghanistan, adding that, “Western states send Ambassadors to Kabul who are experts on this country, but these experts soon become party to political struggles on the Afghan agenda, and thus they lose their objectivity. On the other hand, since I do not know much about Afghanistan, I distance myself equally to everyone and remain neutral”. The then Ambassador explained Turkey’s diplomatic prowess and regional influence by asserting that, “When Turkey raises an angry eyebrow, everyone get in order”. But in reality the problems faced by Turkish citizens in Kabul and the Afghan police’s treatment of Turks did not support the claims of the Ambassador. Kabul police frequently arrested Turkish citizens for drinking alcohol, only to release them in return for large bribes. Persistent complaints and the Turkish Embassy’s attempts to resolve this and similar practices rendered no results. After returning to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 upon Turkey’s insistence, it looked like luck had smiled upon Dostum for a second time, especially after the 9/11 attacks. General Dostum drove Taliban forces out of the north with the help of American Special Forces in November 2001 and was suddenly declared the saviour of the north. But it would not take long for Ankara, which had again become hopeful of Dostum, to realize that it was mistaken. After only one month, in December 2001, although leaders of all groups in the country were invited to an Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, neither General Dostum nor any other person representing the Uzbeks was invited. Americans skilfully used Dostum to clean up the Taliban mess in the north, and after the job was done he was thrown away like a used napkin. Not only did General Dostum not get what he expected from the post-Taliban government; he lost the most important city in the north, Mezar-i Serif, to his rival, the Tadjic commander Ustad Ata. Meanwhile in Maymana, Dostum’s oldest rival and archenemy General Melik gained a strong footing. The Uzbek leader who once ruled over 7 provinces in the north during the 1990s, now found himself stuck between two enemies in his birthplace of Sibirgan city. When Dostum, whose power and influence were significantly reduced in the new period, began to cause trouble in the north and became a thorn in the side of the Karzai government, Turkey was put into a difficult position as the only state that still supported the Uzbek leader. Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to bring Fayzullah Zeki, one of Dostum’s closest aides, to the leadership of the Cumbis party to replace Dostum and to support Zeki as the new leader. Zeki, who was an MP from Sibirgan, had received his postgraduate education in Tashkent and was an experienced and clever politician. When Turkish officials in Kabul guaranteed that ‘Turkey will look out for your back’, Zeki agreed to replace Dostum and prepared to become the new leader of the Cumbis party.
Dostum somehow learnt of the secret meeting between Zeki and the Turks, and invited Zeki and his close MP friends Sakir Karger and Settar Derzabi to Sibirgan. Karger and Derzabi feared that something would go badly and avoided going to Sibirgan with excuses of “illness” and hid in Kabul for some time. Zeki, on the other hand, appeared in front of the General, confident that the Turk’s had guaranteed his safety. He was unaware that Dostum took an oath to punish his aide who was preparing to revolt. According to a secret source, soldiers heavily beat Zeki and even Dostum, unable to control his anger, gave a few good slaps and a kicking. Afterwards, soldiers, under the orders of the General, raped Zeki. In Afghanistan, rape is considered the most embarrassing and shameful punishment that could happen to a man. After being treated in Tashkent, Zeki returned to Kabul. Turkish officials, who learned about the event, went to Zeki’s home to offer condolences but the Uzbek MP reproached them by saying “You deceived me and threw me to a lion, then watched him tear me apart.” In North Afghanistan, where news of what Dostum had done to his closest aide spread quickly, Uzbeks began to move away from the General in disappointment. Afghan President Karzai, on the other hand, was watching the end of the troublemaker Dostum with great pleasure. Turkmens had been distant to Dostum since the beginning but an event that happened in March 2008 made this more apparent. In February 2008, after Dostum kidnapped his rival Akbar Bay, he was held under house arrest in Kabul but was allowed to see visitors. In front of a group of Uzbek and Turkmens that came to visit him, Dostum cursed at the legendary leader of the Turkmens, Abdulkerim Mahdum, and threatened to eradicate Mahdum’s family if he did not appeal to Karzai to revoke the house arrest. It should be noted that Mahdum is highly respected not only by Turkmens and Uzbeks, but also by all other ethnic groups in the north as the grandson of “Gizilayak Halife”, the leader of an important sect in North Afghanistan in the 1930s. Mahdum, who was elected as an MP from Sibirgan to the first parliament in Afghanistan in 1964, established good relations with Suleyman Demirel and Alparslan Turkes in the 1970s. Having heard about Dostum’s threat, the Turkmen community became agitated and hundreds of them crowded around Mahdum. Turkish officials, who saw the risk of Uzbeks and Turkmens becoming engulfed in escalating tensions, instantly took action. One NIO operative went from Uzbekistan to Sibirgan and calmed Turkmens after holding a meeting with Mahdum.
Karzai lost his patience towards Dostum, who could not keep silent even under house arrest and continued to stir trouble. When the Afghan President and American commanders told the Turks to “either control your man, or we know what to do with him”, General Dostum was hurriedly brought to Ankara in a plane that was sent from Turkey in December 2008.
Consequently, Turkey’s Afghanistan policy since 1992 resulted in a fiasco, mainly because Ankara’s policy was based solely on an unstable warlord. Ankara could have looked for other options when Dostum lost his rule for the second time in 1998 and was forced to escape from Afghanistan. For example, the Uzbeks and Turkmens could have been supported as two different groups or measures could have been taken to enable reputable figures like Mahdum to represent the Turkic people in Afghanistan. But Ankara, for unknown reasons, insisted on putting all its eggs into one explosive basket.
Iranian support propelled the Shiite Hazars, who were divided into tens of different groups in the 1980s, into an important political power centre in Afghanistan by uniting them under the Hizbi Vahdet (Unity Party). Thus, in the new government under Karzai, Hazars became one of the three significant government partners by acquiring seven Ministries and one Vice-Presidency. The Russian supported Tadjics became the second significant bloc in the government and gained considerable sway in the new period. But General Dostum, who Turkey had supported and attached high hopes to, was forced to escape from the country and vanished from Afghan politics, let alone control an influential office in the Karzai government. Today, Turkey seeks to unite the Uzbeks and Turkmen in North Afghanistan, where Dostum was skilfully uprooted, under the Cumbis Party ahead of the upcoming election scheduled for 20 August.
To this end, Turkish officials are promoting various Turkmen and Uzbek candidates from Turkic allied groups who are in close contact with the NIO but are perceived as “foreign tools” by their own people in Afghanistan. After turning a blind eye to the torture and havoc reaped by Dostum , even against his closest aides, and bailing him out with a private plane to Turkey when he was cornered, now Turkmens and Uzbeks see Turkey’s efforts as nothing more than a whistle in the wind. While Turkey may have won over one of the most horrible warlords of Afghanistan, still hosted in a villa outside of Ankara, it still stands to lose the Turkic groups in North Afghanistan.