General Rashid Dostum rules a region in Afghanistan the size of Massachusetts and has waged wars for much of his life. In the past few months, aided by heavy American bombardment, Dostum's troops swept through Taliban-controlled areas, bringing an end to the Taliban rule in Mazar-e Sharif, parts of Kabul and Kunduz and eventually helping with the capture of Kandahar. It was under his watch that the bloody uprising of prisoners in Mazar-e Sharif was quelled when Dostum's men literally flushed out the Taliban prisoners -- and the American Taliban, John Walker -- by flooding the basement of the 19th century fortress.
Among the warlords of Afghanistan, Dostum is an enigma. The New York Times recently called the commander of U.S.-backed Northern Alliance troops "a potentially destabilizing force in the new Afghanistan." In 1997, he was the first and last Afghan leader to invite a United Nations human rights commission to investigate massacres of the Hazara minority at the hands of the Taliban. Yet critics say he is authoritarian and eventually wants to establish his own rule. It is no secret that the 47-year-old Uzbek views his current position of deputy defense minister under the new interim government as a disappointment. Supporters, especially among the country's Uzbek and Tajik minority, claim Dostum faces a racial prejudice -- a tendency to vilify Uzbeks as a warrior race due to their Turkish roots. They claim the Soviet-trained officer has the makings of a democratic ruler.
Dostum is known to rule with an iron fist and his troops have a reputation for pillaging, although during the period he reigned in Mazar-e Sharif in the early '90s, the city was peaceful and reasonably well-run -- a place where women attended school and university and worked in public offices. His backers insist he's been unfairly characterized as a thug, while detractors say that Dostum is simply trying to reconstruct his reputation. Speaking over the phone from Ankara, Turkey, Dostum's younger brother, Abdulqadir, complains that unlike the Pashtun chiefs who are called "tribal leader," his brother is always referred to as a "warlord" in Pakistani and Western media.
Warlord or not, Dostum is not a tribal leader. Unlike Afghanistan's newly appointed ruler, Hamid Karzai, and the majority of the nation's top political figures, Dostum can claim neither tribal lineage nor religious status. The son of poor Uzbek peasants from Shibarghan, Dostum spent the first years of his adult life as a worker in a state oil and gas company, then fought with the invading Soviet army, against them, against others, and, since 1995, against the Taliban. He is a self-proclaimed secularist, is the father of nine children from two marriages, and is known to enjoy an occasional drink. We spoke with Dostum by phone recently. Can he be the antidote to fundamentalist tribalism in a country still struggling with the political and ideological remnants of the Taliban?
Why do Afghans fight all the time -- is it the geography, the climate, one of the byproducts of living in a tribal society?
There are enough people who love power and control. Fighting is in their interest. Also, we've always had foreign interference from neighboring countries. They are afraid of Afghanistan becoming powerful and peaceful because this would create pressures in their own countries to be better, more democratic.
You've been fighting since 1978. Is this what you wanted to do with your life?
You're right, this fighting has been going on for too long now. But it's a type of mandatory fighting -- everyone in Afghanistan was forced to take sides and fight. This wasn't at all what I had desired for my life. If Afghanistan had been a peaceful country, I'd have liked to remain as a worker in the gas and oil company in Northern Afghanistan where I started. I wanted to continue helping the development of my country. Maybe one day when there is peace, I can do that.
Is there any hope of that for Afghanistan?
People are tired of fighting here. We should have a federal system in which all groups will be equally respected and given the same rights. In the past, we had different zones, each with autonomy. If the world wants to respect the rights and wishes of the Afghans, there should be a type of federalism. This is what I'd like to see in the end.
How on earth did you get into the business of fighting in the first place -- since you are neither a tribal leader nor a religious one? You must have made a series of choices.
Long story. But to make it short, we as the Uzbeks used to take a lot of abuse as a minority. I remember being abused even as a child. Same thing was happening to the Hazara people. At some point when I was in the military, I went back to my village and talked to the people there. I explained the military situation in the country and made a case for defending ourselves and our rights. That's how it all started.
Do you ever get a chance to spend time with your family?
My wife is arguing with me over the telephone about the same thing. "Why don't you come and see us?" my family says. What can I do? I tell them there is fighting and that I have responsibilities to take care of. I haven't seen my wife and kids for a year now. I hope to see them soon.
Do you have a big family like everyone else in Afghanistan?
I have nine children. My first wife died -- from her I have four -- and I have five kids from my second wife. The oldest is an 18-year-old girl and the youngest is only 3. They live outside the country [in Turkey].
You are notorious for your toughness. I read that one day you punished one of your men by tying him to tank tracks and crushing him.
Someone from CNN asked me about the same story. It must be in a book. This is absolutely untrue. I respect human dignity and don't remember punishing anyone that way. I love my soldiers and they love me. We're willing to die for each other every day. But reporters here multiply everything, even jokes. I have heard on Al-Jazeera many times that I had died or was badly wounded. One day I just called them up to complain. Even with different ethnic groups here, I have a good reputation. No one blames me for cruelty.
A while ago, we watched the bloody uprising of Taliban prisoners, including John Walker, at the 19th century fortress, which is also your headquarters. Is that where you live now?
No, the fort is pretty much destroyed from the bombing. I live in a town called Qadibali.
During the uprising, your troops, after they finally gained control, were accused of massacring the remaining Taliban.
We have about 4,000 Taliban prisoners altogether right now. If we wanted to kill them, there would not have been any prisoners. I must tell you that the fighting started because they misused our trust, our confidence in them and our good manners. We wanted to treat them as decent human beings and welcomed their decision to give up arms. But unfortunately they misused our hospitality. They had hidden some weapons under the car and on their bodies. When finally at Qala-jengi, they exploded a bomb [they had smuggled in] and killed or wounded many of our important commanders. After the explosion, they got hold of the weapons in a certain section and started attacking, initially killing 10 to 15 guards. The fighting started this way. They killed about 45 and wounded over 200 people of ours.
At the moment, we don't have enough hospital facilities for people to treat them. Meanwhile, some Taliban were able to escape and go to surrounding villages. There were arrests. We arrested five Arabs from a home in the area. Yes, some were killed. On the final day of the uprising, 80 were hiding, not willing to come out. I sent in a mediator and they killed him, too. Finally, we took control of the place. They were mostly Arab fighters, Chinese, Uigur, Chechens, Pakistanis, a representative of Osama bin Laden and even an American citizen.
Fighting was started by them. If some were killed, it's not our fault. We didn't want to mistreat or kill them. We wanted to treat them well. But they are terrorists and they wanted to die and they didn't just want to die by themselves and took our people as well.
Right now more than 40 [Taliban] are badly injured and I have sent them to the hospital. If we wanted to kill them, we wouldn't be so willing to send them for treatment at the hospital. There are also very important ones among them, like Mullah Nuri. I'm treating them well. If I wanted to kill them, I would've done that earlier. Only a group of some 40 Taliban who were arrested in Kunduz were not able to survive the road and died on the way because of lack of doctors and medicine. We have 4,000 Taliban prisoners right now; if we wanted to kill them, there would not have been any prisoners.
Where was John Walker exactly?
He was in the basement.
The anti-Taliban victory was in no small part due to the Taliban or Pashtun tribes switching sides in the takeover of main cities. You yourself have done it in the past when you first fought with the Soviets and then against them. Why do Afghans keep switching allegiances?
This goes back to the origins of a political group or party. Once a party or a movement is formed, the leader has to take care of the people surrounding him, his supporters and their families. You have to do whatever is best for their well-being in any given moment. As for me, I have done it to get better rights for my people. In 1992, the fall of Mazar-e Sharif was the fall of the communist regime. I don't call that changing sides. I had to take into account whatever was better for the people who were with me, fighting, even dying with me. I also had to take into account what was best for their families. If you call that changing sides, fine. But I don't. I opposed the recent United Nations effort [Bonn negotiations] because the key ministries were divided unequally. The struggle of our people [Uzbeks] was ignored. Different parts of the country should be valued equally -- that's why I opposed that. I wanted justice in the negotiations.
You visited the U.S. in 1996. What did you think of New York, where this whole thing started on Sept. 11?
I had heard many stories about New York, the high-rise buildings, the cleanliness of the streets, and also how green some places were. When I came over to the States, I was amazed at how advanced everything was, especially the roads, constructions and the buildings impressed me. I told everyone about the roads when I returned to Afghanistan. When I visited the World Trade Center, they told me details about the building and also about the 1993 attack and about how people had been killed. I thought at the time how stupid it was to do something like that to such an amazing building -- trying to destroy something people had constructed. When I heard about the Sept. 11 attacks, and that the building was destroyed and people killed, I was very, very sad.
During that visit we also went to Washington and Texas. I was amazed at how developed everything was over there as well. We visited oil companies in Texas and talked to a number of people about the possibility of developing the oil in Afghanistan. This would help the country a lot.
Afghan women were among the groups to suffer the most under the Taliban. Even with the Taliban gone, women are not celebrating on the streets or rushing to take part in political structures ...
Women are half the soul of a society. My belief is to treat them as equals to men. That's why I allowed ladies to work and go to university. Education is not only for men. That's what we had in Mazar-e Sharif in the past and that's what we'll have in the future. I have already announced that women who used to work in offices can now go back to work. Registration at the university has just started. During the negotiations in Bonn, they asked us to name an Uzbek delegation to join the interim government. Out of the six people, there is one lady [I named]. A group of women came to see me the other day wanting to get back to work. During our meeting, I asked them to immediately establish a council that could advise us on these issues and elect a representative who can become my deputy. I'll listen to their advice.
The burqa became a symbol of Taliban oppression to women. Even with the Taliban defeated, not all Afghan women are throwing off their burqas. Why?
They can choose to do what they want. I didn't force it, and I won't force them to take it off. It's their decision.
What about your wife -- does she wear the burqa?
My answer is the same whether it's my wife or any woman in Northern Afghanistan. This is my wife's own decision.
This war is against one of the most fundamentalist of regimes in recent history. Are you a secular man yourself?
This has been my position in the past. I have long been opposed to fundamentalism. I warned about the Taliban to all visiting delegations, including Americans. I used to tell them that one day, these people would be a big problem for all of us. Though alone and weak, I was consistently against fundamentalism and extremism. People cannot remain without democracy and freedoms and should have rights.