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Dostum’s absence from Afghanistan – why is it important?

Dostum’s absence from Afghanistan – why is it important?

Sophia Nina Burna-Asefi is an undergraduate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. Born in London, she lived in Uzbekistan for 6 years and has been travelling extensively in Afghanistan for the past 9 years. She is a member of the RSAA.

The absence of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, first vice president of Afghanistan and leader of the Junbish-i Milli Party, poses a significant challenge to the security and stability of the Afghan state, on top of those it already faces. Sexual abuse allegations were made against him and two other members of his party earlier this year, but he has not faced trial for them as he left for Turkey in May on the grounds that he was seeking treatment there for ill-health.

Dostum’ s continuing absence might well have saved him from a criminal trial in Afghanistan, but his exile is also putting a strain on his allegiances in the Northern provinces. The current situation, moreover, has seen a return of the Northern Alliance, echoing the powerful, but short-lived coalitions that have been created before in Afghanistan. At this present moment, it is important to consider the issue of stability, Afghan regional tensions and the maturity of the Junbish Party. The question remains whether Dostum’ s conduct could help Afghanistan, or whether he is playing a dangerous game, with not only his interests involved, but external ones.

Photo of the village of Faizabad in Faryab Province, North Western Afghanistan. It was taken in 2011 on my journey to Maimana.

Dostum’s absence from Kabul has created a power vacuum in the National Unity Government, and also in the Junbish Party. Such absences, in the current context, have the potential to be highly destabilising. It should be remembered that Afghanistan is to all intents and purposes a failed state: it cannot guarantee security to its citizens, and has still not been brought under consistent administration of any single authority. This has been the situation since the civil war in the 1980s, where the PDPA government took control of Kabul, Mazaar-i Sharif, Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad, whereas the Mujahidin had control of the countryside. In this situation, ordinary people, particularly in the provinces, struggle to see the value in central government. Hence, strong local governors and warlords such as Dostum and his fellow party leaders, whilst taking advantage of the central government’s lack of recognition, are also vital for regional stability.

This de facto authority vested in regional governors and warlords offers the opportunity for these leaders to test the central government’s resistance to local power. Indeed, a rising alliance between three regional parties, Junbish-i Milli, Jamaat-i Islami and Hezb-iWahdat, provides a coalition which is a formidable challenge to Ghani’s presidential legitimacy. It calls for Ghani to devolve power to cabinet ministries, to restore Dostum’ s full authority and to investigate the government attack made against him, whilst also maintaining the stability of central government.

Whilst the creation of a new alliance can perhaps boost the confidence of the Northern provinces in their leader Dostum, it also prompts the question of how much power-sharing Afghanistan can take, until another civil war breaks out.

While Dostum’s reputation is under fire, his followers struggle to see the benefits remaining in a party in which the leader is absent. This can be reflected in the recent events in Northern Afghanistan such as Kunduz and Jawzjan, where his loyalties remain fragile, and will only survive if the leader remains strong in the public eye. His absence has also bolstered the confidence of pro ISIS and Taliban fighters in the Northern provinces, such as, Sari-e-pol, Faryab, Jawzjan, Kunduz, and Badakhshan province. This can create a new front of ISIS-affiliated groups and certain Taliban elements, further undermining the stability of Afghanistan.

Although Dostum’s departure can both seen as worrying, it provides an opportunity for the Junbish party to mature. It has allowed other figures from the Uzbek community to emerge as potential leaders, such as Dostum’s son, Botor Dostum. New faces rejuvenate the party’s political image whilst developing an image of continuity. Indeed, it demonstrates how in the absence of the leader, there are credible successors. Yet for the party to expand and become a strong player in the western-imposed system of ‘winners and losers’ requires a mobilising force. Commanders need leadership to maintain the supply of money and essentials, and leaders need the allegiance of commanders to develop further influence in Afghan Politics.

Delays in the development of a US Afghan Strategy further boost the morale of pro-Russia and Iran groups, which now include Dostum. The Whitehouse has divided into two opposing views: one faction under HR McMaster, which holds that the Middle East and Asia should be reshaped and turned against Iran; another, under Steve Bannon, calling for an isolationist policy, and to focus on US domestic reform. This confusion by the US, and its cautious policies by its allies, creates regional tension which frustrates the situation even more. Dostum’s absence, Ghani’s minimal efforts and Abdullah’s quietness show the lack of cohesion, and that without external influence they will never be united.

The new coalition created in Ankara has also brought Turkey closer to Russia and Iran on its policy towards Afghanistan. Hence, it can be argued Dostum’s absence can be seen as a strategic instrument for other key players to control the power balance. This can be seen therefore as a “checkmate” for the western-backed Afghan government. It also suggests the continuing significance of regional leaders, like Dostum and Noor, and that they remain a priority in the sustainability of Afghanistan.

Therefore, Dostum’s time away has led to the Junbish party reconsidering its tactics, and pursuing old alliances. His earlier presence in Kabul had caused increased military tension, and the sexual allegations had lead Uzbeks to question his leadership. His current absence increases the potential for commanders in tense parts of Afghanistan to consider other groups to provide for their demands. Moreover, in his absence, the developing alliance between regional parties is hardening ethnopolitical divisions, with the Pashtuns turning against Dostum and his coalition. This could lead to a further deterioration the security situation, giving ISIS-affiliated groups and the Taliban more traction in the North, where before there would have been resistance to them.

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