Taliban fighters attacked a convoy carrying Afghanistan’s vice president over the weekend, at the same time the group is preparing for a second round of “peace talks” with the United States slated to start this month.
It was the second assassination attempt in eight months against Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who helped U.S. forces liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
Dostum had assailed the terrorist group in a speech Saturday in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where he’d just arrived after a trip to Uzbekistan. Given the chance, he said, he could “eliminate” the Taliban from northern Afghanistan in “just six months.”
He left Balkh province later that day and was on his way to his native province of Jowzjan when Taliban partisans ambushed his convoy in the Pashtun-majority district of Chahr Bolak. After about an hour of fighting, the convoy was able to move on, but it was attacked twice more as it continued to Jowzjan.
The two sides gave dueling accounts of the casualties. A Taliban spokesman claimed on Twitter that the attacks destroyed an armored personnel carrier and a pickup truck, with “4 guards killed & 6 wounded.” He insisted that no Taliban fighters were harmed. A Dostum aide said that one of the general’s bodyguards was killed and two wounded, with two Taliban members captured and 10 more killed or wounded.
The aide said Dostum knew the Taliban had planned to attack but would not change his plans. “Taliban miscreants must know that with every attack they carry out on our political leaders, our resolve gets further strengthened to defeat them,” Afghanistan's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, said in a statement.
Dostum was targeted in July when an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 20 people at the Kabul airport. He had just returned from Turkey, where he’d been in exile for a year after a rival accused him of kidnapping and torturing him while Dostum was acting president with President Ashraf Ghani out of the country.
The Taliban had sent its own suicide bomber after Dostum in 2003, as he left a mosque during Eid al-Adha.
Newsweek in 2002 described Dostum, who turned 65 last week, as “one of Afghanistan's most ruthless and effective warlords.” Born to a poor family and receiving only a seventh-grade education, Dostum rose to become a leader infamous for his changing allegiances. He’s been loyal at some point to just about every group that’s fought over Afghanistan in the last 50 years, aligning himself with the Soviets before switching over to the mujahedeen.
In the civil war that followed the Soviet rout, Dostum ruled an area in northern Afghanistan so successfully that many Afghans fled there as the Taliban began to take over elsewhere. Dostum printed his own currency, and the area was one of the most prosperous in Afghanistan. Girls were allowed to go to school, women could choose whether to be veiled, and all adults could buy alcohol.
But he wasn’t exactly a benevolent dictator. “Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death,” journalist Ahmed Rashid once wrote. Rashid recalled "that the first time he went to meet Dostum, he saw bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the courtyard. Dostum had ordered a soldier caught stealing to be tied to the treads of a tank, which then drove around the compound, crushing him to death.”
The Taliban drove Dostum out of his Mazar-i-Sharif headquarters in 1997, but the general returned triumphantly in November 2001. As one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, Dostum fought alongside U.S. Special Forces in the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. His work with the “horse soldiers” — the animals helped U.S. forces navigate the mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan — to defeat the Taliban was portrayed in last year’s film "12 Strong," in which Dostum was played by Navid Negahban.
After the weekend’s failed assassination attempt, the Taliban vowed to keep targeting Dostum. The terrorist group blames him for the deaths of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001. Some Western observers also believe he suffocated the prisoners in sealed truck containers, which Dostum denies.
Though Dostum serves under Ghani, he’s thrown his lot in with Abdullah, who is challenging Ghani for the presidency in September’s elections.