Title: The Last Warlord; Author: Brian Glyn Williams; Publisher: Harper Collins India; Pages: 372; Price: Rs 599
History is told by the victors but in our modern age, even contemporary events get — or are given — a slant, where some contributors soon get eclipsed from the narrative or their images tarnished. The changing perception of this key player in the murky, violent recent story of Afghanistan is a case in point.
Is Abdul Rashid Dostum one of the infamous warlords whose internecine struggles for power destabilised Afghanistan till the Taliban rose to provide a cure worse than the ailment, or an inspiration for his oppressed Uzbek minority, someone who maintained peace and harmony over a large area until he was betrayed by some of his own men and allies?
What was his record in fighting the Taliban and what role did he play in ultimately overthrowing their harsh rule? And most crucially, does he have a place in the “new” Afghanistan?
Out of all these, his role ahead, and with, the American forces in the wake of 9/11 is unprecedented, says American historian Brian Glyn Williams, recounting how Dostum’s few men fought the Taliban in 2001 in the harsh Hindu Kush mountains on horseback — a form of warfare deemed lethally impractical in an age of automatic weapons and air power.
“But in what has to be one of the greatest upsets in modern military history, the Uzbek descendants of Genghis Khan proved the doubters wrong. In one of the most decisive campaigns of the entire war on terror, the hardy Uzbeks cut their way through one Taliban defensive line after another. Galloping through the smoke of supporting American satellite-guided bombs delivered by B-52s, they charged the Taliban’s tanks, firing armour-piercing RPGs and Kalashnikovs from the hip….” he says.
Any man who could inspire such bravery has to be exceptional. And Williams’ account brings this out in its description of an ordinary boy from a peasant family, who transformed from an oil worker and a special forces soldier to a popular leader and one of the most powerful figures in the country (still).
Based on unprecedented and extensive access to Dostum (after meeting him for the first time in 2003 and convincing him of his objectivity) as well his family and key aides and subordinates, local village elders and mullahs, Taliban enemies and women’s rights activists, William’s account features spectacular victories, crushing defeats and betrayals, as well as heart-breaking tragedies, personal and political, in taking a vivid look at Afghanistan in its all glories and faultlines.
On the way, we also find how Dostum picked his unusual “surname” (similar to the way Ernesto Guevara became “Che”), the scrapes he got into, including a scheduled execution, his dramatic first romance — and its tragic end, and his religious and social outlook.
Williams clearly admires his subject but is not totally spellbound, admitting where the burly warlord may be gilding or embellishing the account, where evidence of claims cannot be found or verified, and giving appropriate credit to other players where needed.
But his story, which begins with an account of his first meeting with Dostum in Mazar-e-Sharif and then goes into flashback, also provides the historic, political and social backdrop to explain the rise of ethnic warlords like Dostum, Ahmed Shah Massoud and others, and their shifting alliances.
This, he shows, is a legacy of ethnic mistrust and tension created in 1880 when (Pashtun) “Iron Emir” Abdul Rehman forcibly annexed the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara areas with considerable bloodshed. In this light, the defection of Dostum, who had been the military mainstay of President Najibullah, and why he did the same with his Tajik and Hazara allies in 1994, is understandable — but he did have good reasons too, we learn.
Williams then goes on to recount events from the rise of Taliban in 1996 to its overthrow in 2001 from Dostum’s perspective, and his consequent sidelining and even exile under Hamid Karzai. Here he also deals with the attempts to demonise Dostum, and how far justified they were, while also trying to gauge who was behind it and for what reason.
Packed out with fascinating insights into its convoluted politics and society, Taliban’s depredations and the bravery of those who never gave up opposing them despite the odds, America’s miscalculations from the late 1970s to today and more, this book is key for anyone who wants to understand the country.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])