Stand­off be­tween lead­ers has Afghan cap­i­tal on edge

Govern­ment hasn’t tried to de­tain vice pres­i­dent who is accused of abuse

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com Sayed Salahud­din and Sharif Walid in Kabul con­trib­uted to this re­port.

kabul — An omi­nous week-long stand­off be­tween the govern­ment and its rogue first vice pres­i­dent is chok­ing traf­fic and dom­i­nat­ing talk in the edgy Afghan cap­i­tal. Po­lice units have been sta­tioned at strate­gic points near his for­ti­fied com­pound, and ev­ery­one is ask­ing the same ques­tion: Are they go­ing to ar­rest Ab­dur­rashid Dos­tum?

Six weeks ago Dos­tum, 62, a pow­er­ful eth­nic Uzbek boss and for­mer war­lord with a his­tory of al­leged war crimes and per­sonal abuses, was pub­licly accused of bru­tal­ity and rape by a for­mer gov­er­nor and po­lit­i­cal ri­val, Ah­mad Eschi, who charged that Dos­tum had held him cap­tive in a ru­ral strong­hold and or­dered him sodom­ized with a mil­i­tary ri­fle.

The scan­dalous al­le­ga­tion thrust the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani into a tense predica­ment. Western gov­ern­ments and hu­man rights groups strongly urged him to take le­gal ac­tion, call­ing the case a ma­jor test of civilian rule and in­sti­tu­tions. Some in­flu­en­tial Afghans coun­seled cau­tion, warning that Dos­tum and his armed fol­low­ers could re­act vi­o­lently and urg­ing Ghani to set­tle the mat­ter through ne­go­ti­a­tions.

The pres­i­dent sternly de­clared he would fol­low the law, and his at­tor­ney gen­eral vowed to un­der­take a thor­ough, im­par­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Re­peated let­ters were sent to Dos­tum re­quest­ing that he and his guards ap­pear for ques­tion­ing, but they went unan­swered. On Mon­day, ar­rest war­rants were is­sued for nine of his em­ploy­ees, and they were also ig­nored. Dos­tum’s spokes­men in­sist he can­not be held ac­count­able.

Yet no move has been made to de­tain Dos­tum or his men. The first vice pres­i­dent, who could be sus­pended from his post by par­lia­ment for de­fy­ing the law, re­mains se­questered in his mil­i­ta­rized com­pound in a wealthy res­i­den­tial en­clave, pro­tected by armed guards and re­port­ing for no of­fi­cial du­ties. There are also re­ports that some of the po­lice units in the area are com­manded by Dos­tum loy­al­ists.

“Pres­i­dent Ghani does not have the power to act. You need a strong and se­ri­ous po­lice com­man­der to go af­ter him,” said Atiqul­lah Amarkhail, a re­tired gen­eral. “In Afghanistan, there are many cen­ters of power,” he said. “The govern­ment is di­vided, and the army and po­lice are loyal to in­di­vid­u­als and fac­tions.”

Govern­ment of­fi­cials said they are in no rush to go af­ter Dos­tum and that they are fo­cused on fol­low­ing proper le­gal pro­ce­dures to avoid any sug­ges­tion of a po­lit­i­cal mo­tive. “We want to be ex­tremely care­ful, be­cause this is such a sen­si­tive case. It is go­ing to take time,” one of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he is not au­tho­rized to com­ment pub­licly. He said Dos­tum’s as­so­ciates “un­der­stand the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion” and are in dis­cus­sions on pos­si­ble ways to com­ply.

Mean­while, the govern­ment’s un­cer­tain re­la­tion­ships with other for­mer war­lords are fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the tense pic­ture, rais­ing alarms at an un­set­tled po­lit­i­cal mo­ment. Even as the govern­ment at­tempts to bring Dos­tum to jus­tice, it has in­vited fugi­tive mili­tia leader Gul­bud­din Hek­mat­yar to return to Kabul in a peace deal, hop­ing to per­suade Tal­iban in­sur­gents to fol­low suit.

Hek­mat­yar, a one­time Cold War U.S. ally, turned his forces against the Afghan govern­ment a decade ago and was put on a U.N. ter­ror­ist list. He was sup­posed to return only if the United Na­tions lifted sanc­tions against him. But this week, his spokesman in Kabul sud­denly an­nounced that Hek­mat­yar plans to come to the cap­i­tal any­way.

Davood Mo­ra­dian, di­rec­tor of the Afghan In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, noted that both Dos­tum and Hek­mat­yar have pop­u­lar fol­low­ings, have been accused of se­ri­ous wartime abuses and have never been held ac­count­able. The govern­ment must take pains to en­sure that Hek­mat­yar’s “in­vi­ta­tion to Kabul is not seen as the state fol­low­ing a po­lit­i­cal dou­ble stan­dard, try­ing to bring one war­lord to jus­tice while un­fold­ing a red car­pet to re­ceive the other,” Mo­ra­dian said.

The other strong­man in this volatile mix is At­tah Mo­hammed Noor, a wealthy north­ern gov­er­nor and long­time ri­val of Dos­tum, who has been ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ghani to ob­tain more in­flu­ence and sta­tus. Noor is seen as a pos­si­ble re­place­ment for Dos­tum or Ghani’s gov­ern­ing part­ner, chief ex­ec­u­tive Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, with whom the pres­i­dent has had a rocky re­la­tion­ship since they took power two years ago.

In a re­cent in­ter­view, Noor said that he did not want to pre­judge the charges against Dos­tum, but he called the case shame­ful. “We need the rule of law in Afghanistan, and no one should be above it,” he said. Noor de­nied that he was seek­ing a se­nior ap­point­ment from Ghani, but he ex­pressed con­cern that Dos­tum could re­tal­i­ate against the govern­ment by un­leash­ing vi­o­lence or chaos in the north.

Some Afghan an­a­lysts said the po­lit­i­cally de­bil­i­tat­ing charges against Dos­tum and the likely return of Hek­mat­yar could lead to dan­ger­ous eth­nic di­vi­sions in the govern­ment and pos­si­bly strengthen the Tal­iban. Hek­mat­yar and Ghani are both eth­nic Pash­tuns, but Ghani is a West­ern­ized in­tel­lec­tual, while Hek­mat­yar is a hard-line Is­lamist who could re­in­force rather than help pacify the Tal­iban.

For the mo­ment, though, it is Dos­tum who presents the most im­me­di­ate chal­lenge to Afghanistan’s weak coali­tion govern­ment. The longer he re­mains bunkered in his luxury com­pound a dozen blocks from the pres­i­den­tial palace, de­fy­ing le­gal or­ders and drag­ging out the case against him, the more it looks as though the elected govern­ment, for all its in­ter­na­tional back­ing, is be­ing held hostage by a strong­man from an­other era .

DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In 2004, then-Afghan pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ab­dur­rashid Dos­tum greeted sup­port­ers at a cam­paign rally in Kabul. To­day, he is the coun­try’s first vice pres­i­dent, accused by a ri­val of bru­tal­ity and rape.

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