THE thwarting of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum’s attempt to return home from Turkey after his de facto exile represents a brewing political crisis for the beleaguered National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani.

Amid allegations that he ordered his guards to kidnap, beat and rape a political opponent in Shiberghan in 2016, the former Uzbek warlord quietly flew to Turkey in late May this year. His abrupt departure touched off a wave of speculation about deep divisions within the government. The rumours gained credence as a result of his prolonged stay in Ankara, where he reportedly underwent medical treatment for an unnamed ailment. However, he remained in touch with his acolytes back home on the hyper-fluid political landscape.

Less than two weeks before his botched homecoming, Dostum was hobnobbing in Turkey with several political heavyweights, including Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, acting foreign minister Salahuddin Rab­bani and ex-vice president Mohammad Mohaqiq.

At the Ankara meeting, the one-time rivals agreed on cobbling together a broad-based alliance to steer the country out of multiple problems, like militant attacks, economic stagnation and the president’s dithering on honouring his campaign pledges.

The Dostum episode reflects the growing crisis in Kabul.

Announcement of the coalition, which ironically involves senior government figures, caused jitters. The president’s panic was palpable last week when he ordered his spymaster to air-dash to Turkey to persuade Dostum to return.

But late on Monday, the private jet carrying Dostum was denied landing in Mazar-i-Sharif, reflecting Kabul’s unnerved response to his return. Leaders of the made-in-Turkey alliance were preparing to unveil their future line of action after Dostum’s landing.

The vice president chose to land in the Balkh capital, a redoubt of Atta Mohammad Noor, instead of Kabul where a rape and torture case against him was filed in court. Subsequently, the plane touched down in neighbouring Turkmenistan, from where he may take the land route to Afghanistan.

Annoyed by what he calls a denial of his cons­­titutionally guaranteed discretion, Dos­tum has been at daggers drawn with Ghani for months. He has gone as far as to censure the president of concentrating power and pushing his coalition partners to the wall.

His wringing denunciation of the government, of which he is part and parcel, indicates the gathering political storm in Kabul. The looming crisis could pose a formidable challenge to a government whose constitutionality has come under a cloud.

The power-sharing deal, envisaging constitutional amendments within a year, is yet to be implemented in toto. Three years on, the amendments legalising the chief executive slot, cleaning up the electoral system and calling a loya jirga are yet to be made.

Many Jamiat-i-Islami leaders are incensed by the sidelining of Abdullah and his team in the decision-making process. They want him to part ways with Ghani, who has delayed parliamentary elections that were due in May 2015 besides keeping vital state institutions under his control.

Earlier, Ghani sacked Ahmad Zia Massoud as his special representative on reforms and good governance — literally with a single stroke of the pen. Bodyguards of Massoud were disarmed and his staff sent home. Prior to that, the National Directorate of Security chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, had also been dismissed summarily.

Ghani’s growing intolerance of dissent has prompted his critics to join hands against him; hence the creation of several alliances. The opposition group­­ings have vowed to oust the president and his hand-picked cabinet.

In large measure, the alliances are the outcome of growing disillusionment with Ghani’s autocratic style of governance and his disdain for democratic ideals. A number of powerful politicians, feeling cornered, have decided to ramp up the pressure on the government.

Today, Ghani is faced with unprecedented aversion from the High Council of the Coalition for Afghanistan’s Salvation, Mehwar-i-Mardum-i-Afghanistan, Herasat and Subat Council and Jabha-i-Nawin Millie. Jihadi figures led by Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf are also baying for the president’s blood. Former commerce minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi is also at loggerheads with Ghani.

Though Dostum is accused of grave war crimes and human rights violations, he has been instrumental in frustrating attempts by militant groups to foment trouble in the north. Recently, he personally led anti-Taliban offensives in Faryab and Jawzjan, forcing the insurgents to take to their heels.

In order to stay in the saddle, Ghani may offer Gulbadin Hekmatyar a significant role in the near future. But in the final analysis, the presidential woes would mount if Dostum teams up with other power brokers. Prosecuting the vice president at this point in time will be a huge misstep by the government.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2017

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