The U.S. and many Afghans may see Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum as the epitome of the worst brand of warlord politics, but to President Hamid Karzai he represents a bloc of votes crucial to winning reelection. The feared Uzbek warlord, who returned to Afghanistan from Turkish exile on Monday, urged some 10,000 people gathered in his home district to vote for Karzai. The president needs to win more than 50% of the votes cast on Thursday to avoid a runoff election. And Dostum figures his endorsement will deliver 500,000 additional votes to the incumbent. "Because I am now here, more than two million people will vote in the election for Mr. Karzai," he told TIME.
While Karzai has welcomed home the Uzbek strongman, the U.S. and human rights groups have protested his sudden return as a setback for Afghan democracy. As a commander of the Uzbek forces of the Northern Alliance, Dostum acquired a reputation for brutality and was accused of war crimes, including the mass suffocation of Taliban prisoners held in metal containers in 2001. He denies the allegations. Dostum had taken refuge in Turkey amid conflict with a rival, but he remains the single most powerful leader of an Uzbek minority that accounts for 9% of Afghanistan's population.
Since his return, hundreds of supplicants have arrived at his sprawling residence, known as "the castle," seeking an audience with the general. The fact that the courtyard's swimming pools were empty despite the 100-plus degree heat were testament to the suddenness of the warlord's reappearance. As his militiamen kept guard, townspeople expressed their enthusiasm for Dostum's return. "Our homes are safe because of the general," says Sharif Qaridyar, the manager of a busy ice cream parlor. "People in the south who say bad things against him should look at where they live." A laminated poster of the general in the mountains on a white horse hung on the wall behind Qaridyar. Asked whether, if Dostum requested it, he would switch sides and vote for Karzai's opponent Abdullah Abdullah, Babak Khan, a butcher across town, replied: "Anything he says, we will obey. If that means Abdullah, then yes, of course." Not that there's much chance of Dostum switching his allegiance.
Nader Nadery, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, is skeptical. "On the surface, people say they will obey the warlords out of fear" in areas where rule of law is lacking, he says. "But when they know that ballots are secret, they will vote how they want to choose." Opinion polls show that 80% of Afghans have an independent voting attitude, he says, but laments the fact that "some leaders are stuck in the old ways of doing politics."
In the months preceding the vote, President Karzai made a series of cunning backroom deals to co-opt potential opponents. Many assume that Dostum's support for Karzai was likewise brokered, in exchange for amnesty from prosecution on alleged crimes, or a cabinet post. But the general insists he seeks no office. Instead, if asked by the Afghan government, he says he's prepared to launch an anti-Taliban offensive across the north of Afghanistan, parts of which have seen an alarming rise in violence in recent months. "I have my own power to destroy the Taliban," he says. "They either escape or I will kill them." Within three months, he promised, nine provinces would be pacified without help from the Army, police or foreign forces.
Dostum rejects all accusations of brutality, insisting that those opposed to his homecoming are in league with the Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan. "I've received 20,000 people at my home over the past two days. Why did they come to meet me?", he asks rhetorically. "Because they are afraid the Taliban are approaching. By having General Dostum in the northern provinces, the people will again feel like they are in the belly of their mothers."
This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.