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Afghan first vice president, an ex-warlord, fumes on the sidelines

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KABUL, Afghanistan » The security meeting was almost at a close when the first vice president of Afghanistan, the former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, began crying.

It was a jarring ending to the typically somber weekly gathering of the National Security Council. But Dostum, who has been accused in the mass killing of hundreds of Taliban prisoners, was distraught. He was tired of being ignored by the roomful of powerful people, he said, including President Ashraf Ghani and his national security adviser, Hanif Atmar.

"No one returns my calls!" he blurted out to the gathering several weeks ago, according to two people there. "I just want to help this country. The people made me a general, but no one even asks for my advice."

The scene highlighted the odd transformation of Dostum from a "quintessential warlord," in the words of U.S. diplomats, into one of the most powerful men in the Afghan government – at least on paper. Since taking office in September, he has found himself marginalized and has become deeply frustrated by what he feels is an indifference to his decades of combat experience and leadership as the strongman of the Uzbek minority, Afghan and Western officials say.

When Ghani selected him as a running mate last year, the strategy was clear enough. Dostum was certainly controversial: Human rights advocates accuse him of war crimes, and the memories of abuses at the hands of some of his fighters still resonate. But he commands the loyalty of the nation’s Uzbeks, roughly 10 percent of the population, a voter block that Ghani desperately needed.

It was a troubling trade-off, but most officials, Western and Afghan, figured that Dostum would be happy just having a seat at the table. But that now appears to have been a miscalculation.

The breakdown at the National Security Council meeting was only one in a string of bizarre incidents involving Dostum since he was sworn in.

In November, he turned up at the scene of a Kabul suicide attack in his gym clothes and began rambling in front of the cameras. Among other things, he speculated on whether the truck used to carry out the bombing might have been airlifted to the blast site, given its odd positioning, and reminded viewers of the time he kicked 45,000 fighters for al-Qaida out of the country in 2001.

The next month, Dostum suddenly announced he was planning to create a force of 20,000 elite troops to clear one of the most deadly areas of the country. He later retracted his vow, but only after sending a shudder through the ranks of officials and Afghans wary that the former warlord would reconstitute another armed group.

Just days after that, Dostum announced to great fanfare that he had personally persuaded 200 former Taliban members to join the peace process in his native Jowzjan province. But the Taliban, it turns out, were once the militiamen of his own party, Jumbesh, local elders and officials said. And rather than 200 fighters, the figure was closer to 30 or 40, they added.

His actions have been, in the words of some officials, a "cry for help." Others have found his behavior an amusing aside in what has started off as a rocky term for Ghani.

But there is nothing funny about a warlord adrift in the palace. As the first vice president, he is next in line to assume control of the country if something should happen to Ghani. Militias associated with his party remain active in northern Afghanistan.

Dostum and his aides initially did not respond to requests to comment for this article. Immediately after it was first published online, however, his aides submitted a written response from him.

In the statement, Dostum took issue with reports he was attempting to create a new militia in December, saying he had been involved in discussions among military leaders to establish a formal military force. He rejected the assertions of local elders and officials that the Taliban members he had engaged in a peace process had been his own militiamen at one point, and insisted that he disarmed militiamen associated with him after the Taliban’s fall in 2001.

On the issue of being marginalized by Ghani’s inner circle, his office said: "Mr. Dostum is the second, legal and authorized official of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."

Dostum rose to prominence as a pro-Soviet commander in the 1980s, fighting against the Afghan mujahedeen. Since then, he has carefully selected his allies, often switching sides during the conflicts that have consumed Afghanistan for much of the past 30 years. One of the most powerful, and lucrative, connections he made was with the CIA, and he was part of the movement that supported U.S. forces in ousting the Taliban in 2001. Later, he joined with President Hamid Karzai as he governed for more than a decade.

Ghani, who years ago publicly described Dostum as a "known killer," selected him for his running mate last year in his campaign for the presidency, an arrangement brokered by Karzai. Since then, Ghani has stood firm in his choice.

During the election campaign, he called Dostum a "charismatic leader" and said his choice was meant to bring peace and inclusiveness. It was a clear acknowledgment of the deep regard Dostum still enjoys within Afghanistan’s Uzbek minority.

But right away, Ghani was also careful about how he deployed his running mate. The vice president was the main event at rallies in northern Afghanistan, drawing tens of thousands of fervent supports and upstaging Ghani at times. But Ghani kept him from campaigning in the south and east, where the Pashtun population dominates.

Since then, the marginalization has deepened, and Dostum has been kept from the inner circle of decision makers in the palace, according to several Afghan and Western officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics.

Ghani has instead stuck with a cadre of loyalists who have little use for the Uzbek strongman. According to Afghan officials familiar with Dostum’s outbursts, the vice president has warned Ghani that he is surrounding himself with "fascists."

Some officials see Ghani’s balancing act with Dostum as a way to fulfill a commitment to keep people with unsavory pasts out of prime decision-making roles. But it is clearly not going smoothly so far.

"Karzai always knew what he was going to do with someone before he pushed them out," said one Afghan official, contrasting the political skills of the former president with those of Ghani.

To keep himself busy, Dostum has started a campaign called Fitness for All, an attempt to get Afghans to exercise and lead healthier lives. Photographs of the vice president leading his men, dressed in matching tracksuits, on exercises around the vice presidential grounds now populate his Facebook page. He has also taken an active role in promoting the development of Afghan athletes for the Olympics.

Still, Dostum has made clear in recent meetings that he does not see those as the only contributions he has to make. In one meeting recalled by two people who were later briefed on the gathering but did not attend it, Dostum warned that he was "not Ronaldo," the Portuguese soccer star. "You can’t just throw a football at me," he said.

One Afghan official noted that he preferred meetings at the National Security Council when Dostum was around. "It’s a lot more fun," the official said.

But some people are taking Dostum, and his outbursts, quite seriously. The Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz province, Mullah Abdul Salam, recently commented on Dostum’s promise to raise a force during an online Q-and-A with a website run by the insurgents.

"As far as the formation of a new militia force is concerned, it is only for a propaganda war against the mujahedeen, as well as for the absorption of colossal amounts of foreign funds which could have otherwise been spent for the benefit and welfare of ordinary masses," Salam said, according to the interview transcript.

Azam Ahmed, New York Times

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