KABUL – Government troops surrounded the fortified luxury home of First Vice President Abdurrashid Dostum in the Afghan capital Tuesday in an all-day standoff, raising fears of a violent confrontation with his armed guards. The former warlord, accused of brutalizing a political rival, has refused to cooperate with a government investigation for several months.
The action came after Dostum repeatedly ignored requests for cooperation from the attorney general’s office in investigating the case, including summonses for nine of Dostum’s guards and other employees wanted for questioning.
But on Tuesday evening, after hours of tension and confusion gripped the capital, Dostum spoke publicly with supporters inside his house, saying he had ordered his guards to avoid any armed clash. At the same time, he warned that any move to unseat him would weaken the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
In his first public comments on the case since December, when a fellow ethnic Uzbek leader named Ahmad Ishchi accused Dostum of holding him prisoner, subjecting him to brutal assaults and ordering guards to sodomize him, the vice president dismissed the accusations as “a conspiracy of the enemies.” His appearance was broadcast live on a private TV station.
The allegations against Dostum triggered outrage among Western governments and rights groups, which termed the case a major test of Ghani’s ability to establish the rule of law. Under Ghani’s direction, the Afghan attorney general began an investigation of the charges, but Dostum refused to answer several official summonses and warrants issued for nine guards in his employ.
Meanwhile, Dostum has remained largely out of sight, first at his compound in northern Jowzjan Province and later inside his elaborate, bunker-like residence in the affluent Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul. He stopped going to his government office and attending most official functions, although he did appear at the funeral of a veteran political leader last month.
In November, government troops blocked roads near his house in Kabul for a week, raising expectations that Dostum might be arrested, but they did not approach the compound.
The latest standoff began early Tuesday, one day after Dostum suddenly reappeared in his vice presidential office for the first time since November. Armed government forces in several armored vehicles blocked several roads leading to a cluster of buildings he owns in Sherpur. For hours, the troops remained in place, but there was no shooting or other direct confrontation.
In his evening comments, with the troops still outside, Dostum said he was not sure whether they had laid siege to his home or not. But he said he had ordered his militiamen not to respond defensively, even if the government forces reached his doorstep.
It was not immediately clear whether the troops were sent there to arrest either Dostum or the nine guards who have been accused in the case. But the burly former communist general, who has a long history of allegations of brutality, said that if he were removed from his office, it would be a significant blow to the Ghani government, which has been fighting an aggressive Taliban insurgency for more than 15 years and a newer challenge from Islamic State militants.
“Removal of General Dostum from government certainly will not strengthen the government, it will weaken it. People will not stand behind it… . People will be alienated,” Dostum said, speaking in the third person. He looked tired in the TV broadcast, but also made jokes with the supporters surrounding him.
A huge billboard of the 2014 election campaign, showing Dostum next to Ghani, hung behind him as he made his televised comments. He repeatedly referred to the Islamic State as a major emerging threat to Afghan stability, and he called on the government to overcome internal differences with him and stand together to confront the militants.
Dostum, in an apparent effort to emphasize his potential influence on national security, claimed there are tens of thousands of armed outlaws in Kabul, waiting for chaos in order to loot banks and private property should there be further decline of security.
A number of government officials, including those from Ghani’s office, refused to comment on the day’s events. A palace spokesman, asked about Dostum’s sudden resumption of his vice presidential duties, said the president had no objection to it.
Some critics had called on the government to suspend Dostum while the investigation was underway. But several political observers said Tuesday that his return to duty was part of a deal he had made with Ghani.
Dostum’s chief of staff, Enayatullah Farahmand, said his boss would now return to his normal duties. He attributed Dostum’s lengthy absence to his involvement in fighting against the Taliban in the north, followed by trips to Uzbekistan and Turkey.
“The allegations cannot block him from his duties… . He will 100 percent continue to do his duty. We want the issue to not be handled politically,” Farahmand said in an interview.
But several political and academic figures said that Dostum’s return to his post with the charges still pending against him was a sign of weakness on the government’s part.
Hamidullah Tokhi, a legislator from southern Zabul province, said that “failure to implement the rule of law on the president and his deputies is a serious threat for the progress of the country.”
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