Taking tea with Afghanistan’s most fearsome warlord | Pakistan Today

Taking tea with Afghanistan’s most fearsome warlord

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s powerful northern warlord, who was a key US ally against the Taliban and threw his support behind President Hamid Karzai in the last election, gives an interview to the Telegraph’s Magsie Hamilton-Little.
She writes, “As we sit down to tea in his home, the General is unequivocal about the problems facing Afghanistan in the light of the withdrawal of foreign troops.”
Referring to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that he wants to withdraw all combat troops by 2014, I ask the General what he thought of the timing? “Most Afghans believe it is too soon,” he says fearing the country might disintegrate into chaos. I put it to him the comments heard from his own soldiers making up part of the Afghan army who complain that their equipment is inadequate. A common complaint is that the foreign armies are kitted out well (although some back home may beg to differ) whereas the Afghan army has their cast-offs. Their boots are falling apart, their helmets have holes. Nodding gravely, Dostum says, “We are not ungrateful,” he insists, “but if you commit to any form of assistance, you must do it properly. You have a duty to do a good job.” It is not just the poor equipment that leaves the Afghan army feeling despondent for the future security of their country. Many talk of a general lack of respect fuelled by events, however accidental or isolated, such as the holy Quran burnings this February – when US soldiers set alight religious texts – or tales of soldiers urinating on dead bodies. Such occurrences have turned many Afghans against those same foreign forces trying to help them.
“Why come here and insult our culture?” the Telegraph quotes Dostum as saying. “Such events have only served to create an atmosphere of mistrust and anger. New recruits to the Afghan army have to be watched closely in case they are Taliban spies. Acts of disrespect from US troops only serve to strengthen the position of the Taliban and will have made it harder to work out a peaceful solution.” Hamilton-Little writes, “I first came to Afghanistan after witnessing the bus bombing in London’s Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005. Having studied Islamic history at university, my rose-tinted world of Persian miniatures and Sufi poetry had been shattered by the first-hand experience of Islamic terrorism. To my mind, there were now big questions to be asked – and I wanted answers. Against the advice of friends and family, I packed my bags and bought a plane ticket to Kabul.”
“Luckily, the Afghans I met took pity on me. I was, of course, a woman. I was an infidel; and I was alone. My first time I stayed among the locals, venturing into the bazaars unchallenged, often donning a burka. Having expected the worst, I found the Afghans proud and strong, as kind as they were canny, and with a nobility that seemed to me to have been all too often lost in our own society. The generosity I had received from those who owned little more than the clothes they stood up in had moved me beyond words.” She writes, “I had subsequently returned to Britain armed with an entirely new set of questions about the nature of terrorism, the war, and the cultural and religious divisions between our societies, along with a sense of responsibility. I wanted to do something that would help the Afghans that was peaceful and positive. Education was at the heart of what was needed for the long-term regeneration of Afghanistan. However, over 50 percent of the country’s children didn’t go to school at all and reading materials were a scarcity. So I set up a small charity printing books in Kabul for children with little or no access to schooling.”
“During that initial visit – and in my subsequent trips to the country – I have encountered drug dealers, feudal chiefs and Taliban sympathisers, men of influence whose track records are as murky as the toxic waters of Lake Quargha. In a country where corruption is so endemic it is said to be part of the constitution, I never once batted an eyelid. After all, no one else did.” So does the General believe the Taliban can ever be defeated? “Tell your government,” he roars, letting out a great belly laugh, moustache bristling, “that the Taliban amount to no more than around 9,000 individuals. We know who they are and where to find them. Given the order, I estimate it would take less than a year to destroy their ringleaders. I have said this on many occasions.” Dostum’s despondency at the current leadership is surprising given that he helped bring President Karzai to power in the first place, backing him in the last elections. “After the troops withdraw, his days will be numbered,” he shrugs. “In Afghanistan we say he is half-Afghan, half-American because he spends so much time in that country and even owns businesses there.”
Hamilton-Little writes, “I hesitate to ask the General his view of what he thinks will happen to the rights of Afghan women in the future, especially given his own alleged track record. Many women have told me how scared they are of the return to a Taliban-styled government, I say. Women are concerned Karzai will seek peace at any price, and if that means kowtowing to the Taliban on women’s rights, they will do so.” “To ensure progress is made on all fronts, Afghan and US leaders must ensure women are actively involved in a settlement that protects the rights accorded to them in recent years.”
His reassurances offer some comfort, but the fact is that Afghanistan remains a very hard place to live as a woman. Despite incremental improvements following the US invasion that brought in new laws protecting women’s rights, oppression is still rife, particularly in the south. It is estimated that 87 percent of women suffer violence at home, and medical care is so poor that one woman dies every half hour in childbirth. “On the way down in the lift, the sense of apprehension I might previously have felt has all but evaporated as I realise I have survived the meeting unscathed. I ask the General if he has any ideas for a future leader, a Jeffersonian figure who could build the brave new Afghanistan so many of us have been praying for. Is there such a person? Maybe he even plans to stand for office himself, I suggest almost playfully.”
He shakes his head firmly. He does not want the job, but it comes as no surprise that he has someone else in mind.

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