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Afghan warlord led U.S. forces to overthrow the Taliban
Brian Glyn Williams, with a photo of Abdul Rashid Dostum in 2001 in the background. (Photo: Jas Kirt/ UCLA.)

Afghan warlord led U.S. forces to overthrow the Taliban

In 2001, recounted historian Brian Glyn Williams, 12 Americans and 2,000 horsemen defeated the Taliban in just two weeks under the guidance of ethnic Uzbek warlord Dostum.

by Jas Kirt (UCLA 2015)

UCLA International Institute, April 27, 2015 — In an April 15th talk hosted by the Asia Institute and the Program on Central Asia, Brian Glyn Williams presented his recent book, “The Last Warlord” which follows the life of the Afghan Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Williams is a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and has worked in Afghanistan for both the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center and the U.S. Army.

The book is based on declassified information given to the author by the CIA, U.S. Army Special Forces and Dostum himself. Its publication, noted Williams, marked the first time that the details and photographs of the 2001 covert operation in Afghanistan have been made public. In order to write the book, Williams conducted several months of investigative fieldwork in the plains and mountains of northern Afghanistan and lived with the warlord for two months. As a result, he was able to paint a detailed account of Dostum’s successful mission with the CIA.

The Soviet invasion and its aftermath

Dostum initially rose to fame as a prominent local leader aligned with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. While most Muslim Afghan warriors, known as mujahadeen fighters, fought against the communist invasion, Dostum fought for the unpopular ideology of communism.

When the Soviet Army returned home in 1989, Dostum was able to make peace with the mujahadeen and create his own secular, liberal mini-state in the plains of northern Afghanistan. The territory of this state was about the size of England, noted Williams. By the late 1990s, Dostum had an army of 50,000 men, jet fighter planes and hundreds of tanks. At the time, many scholars and journalists called him as “the world’s most powerful warlord.”

In 1998, Dostum was forced to flee to Turkey after his mini-state was overrun and conquered by the Taliban. When the Uzbek warlord returned to Afghanistan in April 2001, he fought the Taliban alongside an ethnic Tajik ally, Ahmad Shah Massoud (another powerful Afghan warlord who had fought against the Soviet occupation). Massoud, an important ally of the United States, was assassinated by the Taliban just days before the September 11th (2001) attacks. His death left his ethnic Tajik fighters in disarray and the United States without a trusted ally in Afghanistan.

Dostum offers the United States a plan

After 9/11, Dostum offered to provide the United States a “proxy army” on the ground in Afghanistan in order to fight their common Taliban enemy. Specifically, he proposed a plan to conquer the Shrine of Hazrat Ali at Mazar-i-Sharif, the holiest site in Afghanistan. Since many Afghans believe that whoever controls the shrine has a mandate from Allah to control the land of Afghanistan, Dostum believed that seizing it from the Taliban would hurt the group’s fighting spirit.

On October 19, 2001, a 12-man special command team of Green Berets landed in Dostum’s mountain base high in northern Afghanistan and fought the Taliban alongside the warlord and his Uzbek fighters on horseback, said Williams. The Americans provided high-precision weapons, including satellite and laser-guided bombs.

In November of that year, Dostum’s troops successfully seized the Mazar-i-Sharif shrine, causing the Taliban to flee northern Afghanistan, said Williams. In just two weeks, the Afghan warlord had guided 12 Americans and 2,000 horsemen to vanquish the Taliban without a single U.S. casualty. His success prevented the United States from mounting a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan.

A controversial figure

There are mixed sentiments throughout the West and Afghanistan about Dostum, who has been marginalized in post-Taliban Afghanistan and continues to be thought of as a warlord. After the initial fall of the Taliban, he was not given an important post within the Afghan government. In October 2014, however, he was named vice president in what is viewed as a political move by President Ashraf Ghani to capture the Uzbek vote (Uzbeks account for 10 percent of the population). Dostum personally holds no real political power.

Western media has sparked debate concerning the warlord’s controversial past, accusing him of brutality comparable to that of the Taliban. The warlord has been accused, for example, of killing his own troops with tanks and engaging in the mass slaughter of 5,000 Taliban. However, Williams argued that Dostum as a “larger-than-life ogre” is a myth. The author’s research found no evidence of these alleged acts. In fact, Taliban prisoners of war, the U.S. Special Forces and the CIA have all said no mass slaughter of Taliban fighters by Dostum ever took place.

Dostum’s legacy

Throughout his talk, Williams highlighted the warlord’s longstanding record as an advocate for women’s rights. Dostum defended women’s rights as early as the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation, equating his defense of communism to his defense and promotion of human rights. When he founded his mini-state in the 1990s, he created the Mazar-i-Sharif University, which accepted women.

Today, there are millions of girls receiving an education in many girls’ schools across northern Afghanistan. Dostum also actively encourages women to exercise their right to vote and become a part of the political process. Although the warlord may be a controversial figure, he made possible the American victory over the Taliban, and has consistently promoted the rights of Afghan women over the last several decades, noted Williams.