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Ruthless Warlord, Hero to Uzbeks, On Ballot In Afghan Elections


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Afghans head to the polls on April 5th to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai. The run-up to the election has been violent. The capital city of Kabul has suffered several major attacks in recent days . On a hotel restaurant, an American aid organization and the election commission headquarters. We'll hear more about one of those attacks in a moment. But first, the political field in Afghanistan's elections reflects that country's stark ethnic divides. While most of the candidates are Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, some of their running mates are high-profile warlords that represent ethnic groups which could help deliver them blocks of votes. The most notorious is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who runs much of northern Afghanistan. A veteran of the country's many wars, he's known for committing some of the most notorious human rights abuses. Even so, he can bring out the vote from his Uzbek ethnic group. NPR's Sean Carberry went to Dostum's home turf.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: This is downtown Sheberghan, which is the capital of Jowzjan province in northern Afghanistan. But it might as well be called Dostum Town. This is the home city of General Dostum, famous warlord and political candidate. And everywhere you turn, you quite literally see signs of General Dostum. On a corner right here is a small market of men selling lamb pelts. Hovering above them are posters of General Dostum with presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

MOHAMMAD SHARIF: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Thirty-five-year-old Mohammad Sharif is a pelt trader here. He views Dostum as the patron saint of Afghanistan's minority Uzbek community that makes up roughly 10 percent of the population.

SHARIF: (Through Translator) We've had many achievements since he fought off the Taliban. He granted us freedom and has built many schools, clinics and mosques.

CARBERRY: Dostum emerged as a commander of Uzbek militias during the '80s, and since then has shifted allegiances, at times fighting against and then with other Afghan factions. Despite initial reservations by the CIA, the U.S. enlisted Dostum's help to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11.

TAJ MOHAMMED: First God then (unintelligible).

CARBERRY: Thirty-year-old Taj Mohammed is another of the pelt dealers here.

MOHAMMED: God save for him everyone freedom, everyone can sleep goodly. They're all safe from Taliban.

CARBERRY: Dostum's vice presidential candidacy has created such a buzz among Uzbek Afghans that they're flying in from all over the world to help the campaign get out the vote.

YACUB RAHMATI: I want to be part of this upcoming election.

CARBERRY: Yacub Rahmati runs an import business in Canada. He's lived outside Afghanistan for the last 45 years but came back to cast his vote. Sitting in a room at Dostum's sprawling guest compound in Sheberghan, Rahmati says the general could solve all of Afghanistan's problems.

RAHMATI: He will be able to bring peace and harmony in this country. He will make sure that the women have rights. He will unite the Afghans.

CARBERRY: Uzbeks like Rahmati argue that their community has been marginalized for decades and a Dostum vice presidency will finally give them their rights.

RAHMATI: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, we all suffered. But the thing is we suffered the most in the north.

CARBERRY: But every ethnic group in Afghanistan says they're being shortchanged for power and jobs. That's why voting has fallen along ethnic lines here and is expected to again in this election. The paradox is that Uzbeks says Dostum will promote their agenda, yet simultaneously unite the country's ethnic groups. He's long been a divisive figure. There are the claims that Dostum still controls an illegal militia and that he committed a host of human rights abuses over the years. For example, allegedly leaving thousands of Taliban fighters locked in shipping containers to asphyxiate in the hot sun. Uzbeks like Rahmati say this is all propaganda.

RAHMATI: We should support this man rather than talking against him.

WALIULLAH RAHMANI: From an Uzbek perspective he's considered as a national hero. From another perspective he's considered as a ruthless commander.

CARBERRY: Political analyst Waliullah Rahmani says that outside the Uzbek community, Dostum has many enemies and detractors, making him a potential liability to Ghani's campaign.

RAHMANI: Pashtuns who are supportive of Ghani, they're no longer really trust Ghani and they have distanced themselves from Ghani.

CARBERRY: When Ghani ran for president in 2009, the squeaky voiced technocrat called General Dostum a known killer. So, it came as a surprise when Ghani, a former World Bank official with a Ph.D. from Columbia University chose the battle-hardened warrior as a running mate this time around.

RAHMANI: Dr. Ghani's ticket is formed only for the sake of winning elections.

CARBERRY: Rahmani says that Ghani's gamble on the controversial Uzbek warlord is a longshot. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.