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Obama turns Karzai ally into a liability

Posted by smeddum on August 6, 2009

Obama turns Karzai ally into a liability
By: Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
KABUL, Afghanistan — The reports are not new. For years now, it has been widely reported that about 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war were stuffed into airless metal shipping containers and buried in the desert after they surrendered to troops under the command of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum in November 2001.
Dostum played a key role in helping the United States eventually topple the Taliban regime.
What is new is U.S. President Barack Obama’s interest in investigating those deaths.
“The indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention,” Obama said in a July 13 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “So what I’ve asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we’ll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all of the facts gathered up.” Obama’s comments have raised a furor in the highly charged atmosphere in Afghanistan on the eve of the country’s presidential election.
Dostum has long been a prominent and controversial figure in Afghanistan. He is widely revered among his fellow ethnic Uzbeks for his bravery, while being just as widely reviled by others, especially Pashtuns, for his brutality.
He is also a key ally of incumbent President Hamid Karzai in his bid for re-election.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, it turned to Dostum, among other warlords who made up what was then known as the Northern Alliance for help.
In the northern city of Kunduz, after a carefully brokered agreement, 8,000 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters laid down their arms and waited for the transport that had been promised.
But according to an investigation by Physicians for Human Rights, conducted under UN auspices, as many as 2,000 of those prisoners were shoved into metal containers with no ventilation, and left to suffocate.
They were then buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili, a desert in Dostum’s home province of Jowzjan.
Investigations by both Afghan and international human rights groups have held the general largely responsible for what amounts to a war crime.
To date, however, neither the U.S. nor the Afghan governments have launched official inquiries.
In fact, soon after being elected in 2004, Karzai brought Dostum into the government, naming him to the largely ceremonial post of chief of staff to the commander in chief.
By 2008, however, clearly unhappy with his role in government, Dostum left Afghanistan for Turkey, saying he was seeking medical treatment for his diabetes. He now lives in Ankara.
In recent months, however, he has indicated that he wants to come home and promised to support Karzai.
That news prompted an article in The New York Times, citing State Department sources as saying that Dostum’s return would not be welcomed by the administration and that Washington “might not be hostile to an inquiry” into the war-crimes allegations.
Then came Obama’s remarks.
Afghan analysts see a darker motive on Washington’s part than merely keeping a suspected war criminal at bay. Many say the real target is Karzai himself.
“The Americans think that if the current situation continues, the crisis in Afghanistan will expand,” said political analyst Amad Saeedy. “So they want to place the burden (of government) on somebody else.” Even Dostum thinks that there’s only one reason to begin investigating his past.
“The only reason for bringing this matter up now is (Afghanistan’s presidential) election,” he said.
Karzai himself has not reacted to this issue directly. But Hakim Asher, the head of the president’s media office, told reporters that the fuss over Dostum could well affect the campaign, adding that the fact that Dostum had a key role in the government meant that the issue could well be connected to Karzai’s candidacy.
When asked directly about speculation over Obama’s remarks and the Times article, State Department spokesman Andy Laine said that Washington’s remains neutral to all candidates in the Afghan elections.
Just a few weeks ago, Karzai appeared certain to gain re-election.
But Karzai’s strange absence from the political scene, along with the emergence of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah as an unexpectedly strong rival have turned the presidential contest into a wide-open race.
No one here believes that could have happened with the Americans playing a role in Karzai’s slippage.
“Karzai has become closer to Iran over the past nine months, and this is intolerable for the Americans,” analyst Saeedy said, adding that this was all part of a concerted effort to unseat Karzai.
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.
–McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2009 A11

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