A Leader Apologises: General Dostum, elections and war crimes
For the first time, a senior Afghan has made a public apology to those of his compatriots who suffered during the war. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the largely Uzbek Jombesh party / ex military faction, made the statement a day after registering as running mate to Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in the presidential elections. It looks like the admission was a condition for joining the ticket, reports AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark. Even so, in a country where it is becoming ever more difficult to discuss war crimes, Dostum’s words may have opened this politically sensitive painful subject to public debate. (With input from Ehsan Qaane.)
Dostum’s statement was made on his Facebook page on 7 October 2013 (read a full translation by AAN at the end of this dispatch). He wrote about the need to heal the pain caused by the horrible events of the wars, to reconcile and avoid a repetition of the bitter past. All people, he wrote, ‘Turkic’, Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara, had suffered in the conflict and they shared a common pain:
I would like to be the first person to say that we apologize to all who have suffered on both sides of the wars and to strive to have the current election as a new page in our country’s politics in which war is not the solution for [our] differences, rather that, through tolerance for each other, reform and dialogue, we arrive at national unity. I hope from this day onwards that we do not allow a repeat of such bitter incidents. We want to be the initiator of a new era and a new tradition in which others will also declare their past mistakes bravely and with courage and that all of us can join together to prevent a repetition of these mistakes.
The statement was overtly linked to the election and looks likely to have been a condition of Ashraf Ghani accepting General Dostum as a running mate. Like almost all other military leaders, Dostum has made some unlikely alliances in the past, but even so, this pair make the most surprising of bedfellows: Ashraf Ghani, Über-Pashtun now complete with beard, turban and tribal takhallus (surname), a western educated, clever former World Banker, UN advisor and finance minister, and General Dostum who, with only school education, rose through the ranks of a gas-field guarding militia during the PDPA period, turning it into President Najibullah’s de facto special forces and then into the Uzbek faction, Jombesh-e Melli (much more background in this AAN report). While Ghani was working in Washington, Dostum was fighting – first against the mujahedin, then in 1992 joining them to become possibly the key figure in the downfall of Najib (for which he received a pardon and a general’s rank from the interim President Mojaddedi), then leading one of the six (otherwise mujahedin) groups fighting viciously over Kabul and finally, after the Taleban’s capture of that city in 1996, allying with his former-enemies-turned-allies-turned-enemies-turned-allies against the greater danger of the Taleban as part of the Northern Alliance. Such making and breaking of alliances was hardly a rare phenomena among the Afghan tanzims, but Dostum’s record is one of the more impressive.
As to war crimes, I have counted eight people (there may be more) standing in these elections who, like Dostum, have serious allegations to answer, going on the major published war crimes reports, including by the United Nations and the Afghanistan Justice Project (the latter, incidentally, has one of the best short accounts of why and how Dostum rose to become the pre-eminent northern leader of the 1990s.) These are allegations not just by association, but that these would be presidents or vice-presidents themselves perpetrated or had command and control of those who perpetrated war crimes or crimes against humanity. In the country as a whole, Dostum is far from alone in having questions to answer. The issue now is whether his statement will open the door to a wider discussion of Afghanistan’s difficult, bitter past. (1)
If you ask leaders and party spokesmen about the war crimes they or their group are alleged to have committed, most refuse to answer. Others deny involvement or try to talk instead about the sufferings which they or their ethnic group or armed faction have endured. The last time the issue of war crimes was seriously raised – in 2005 - the result was a move towards legal protection for the alleged perpetrators. Parliamentary debate in 2006 resulted in a bill passed in 2007 which took legal effect in late 2008 which gave a blanket amnesty (see AAN reaporting here). Many of the people’s representatives themselves benefitted from this law, but it also promised impunity for future crimes (including for any Taleban who reconciled). More recently, there has been the continuing non-publication of the 800 to 1000 page Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s conflict mapping report, the result of a multi-year research to painstakingly record the war crimes which took place between 1978 and 2001 in all of Afghanistan’s provinces (see this AAN report).
As the years since the 2001 intervention have worn on, it has become less easy to discuss the crimes of the past. Standing for election with Ghani has forced Dostum to break ranks on the war crimes issue and it may force other politicians to, at least, face questioning. Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf is the prime example of a senior politician who has been running away from independent journalists for years, refusing all requests for interviews. But, as a would be next president of Afghanistan, he will have to and, indeed, should now be wanting to talk to reporters. (2)
While the international media has been more concerned with President Karzai’s accusation that NATO has caused “great suffering” to Afghanistan and brought no security gain, some of the national media and many Afghan users of social media quickly picked up on the unprecedented nature of Dostum’s apology. (See for example here, here and here - Dostum shared the BBC story on his Facebook page, claiming: “The heroes are those that apologize when they have power, not when they are weak,” which hardly sounded repentant.) Some felt his apology was merely a way of tricking the electorate, but so far, responses have been largely positive. Most of those contributing to a debate on BBC Persian, for example, thought the apology was useful and many felt it was a good beginning. Transitional justice has been mentioned and the hopeful thought that this may be a new phenomenon of voters holding candidates to account. However, no-one that we have seen yet has linked this apology to the other major war crimes issue of the last weeks – the release of the names of 5000 victims of the first communist government.
Whether Dostum wrote this statement himself or not, it is actually very eloquent on why it is important to change “the country’s future history”. Although the term ‘transitional justice’ is not used, one paragraph could have come out of AAN’s recent report on the subject, as an explanation of why truth telling is so crucial :
A bold approach based on a shared understanding of these past painful events is required to create an enduring peace and stability, to heal the pain and suffering of the people, to reconcile the people and make a transition from this past to a shared future, [all this] to prevent revenge-taking and a repetition of these past horrible events.
In the absence of formal truth or justice processes, apologies, especially when coupled with explicitly saying what the person has actually done, can be surprisingly effective. It was the method chosen in the South African truth and reconciliation process and has been part of some other reconciliation initiatives, for example in East Timor.
Reading through Dostum’s statement, it is far from perfect. His apology is generic and he does not speak about specific crimes. Indeed, he does not use the word ‘crime’ at all, choosing to speak instead of pain, suffering and oppression. He locates any past wrongs he may have committed among the mass of wrongs committed by all sides and against all peoples during the war. He uses the passive tense a lot (“people were oppressed”, etc). He does not seek forgiveness; he only apologizes. Nevertheless, he did in some sense, reach the personal. For the most part, this statement was couched in terms of ‘we’ and it was unclear whether he meant ‘we the commanders and leaders’ or ‘we who have caused suffering’ or ‘we Jombesh’ or the royal we. However, for the one sentence of his actual apology, he briefly switched to the first person singular. This apology is obviously part of a hard-nosed little election deal. But it is also the first small step on a path which no other Afghan leader has taken before.
(1) One earlier attempt to trigger a discussion, by former NDS chief and almost-presidential candidate, Amrullah Saleh, in 2011 in an English-language op-ed (read it here and see our analysis here) was a call for an internationally funded truth-finding commission to “investigate human-rights violations, massacres and major crimes of the past 20 years". His suggestion died away without echo.
(2) Electioneering also brings up accusations against rivals, including allies turned rivals. See, for example, the tiff between Muhammad Muhaqiq (running with Dr Abdullah) (here and here) and Amrullah Saleh (this post was subsequently taken down).
General Dostum’s statement (translated from the original Dari by AAN)
Statement of General Haji Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader and founder of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan
In the name of God
Today our beloved country, Afghanistan, is carrying the painful inheritance of wars and disorder. This inheritance has unfortunately cast a shadow over any peaceful, justice-based, coexistence of peoples and brotherly tribes. A bold approach based on a shared understanding of these past painful events is required to create an enduring peace and stability, to heal the pain and suffering of the people, to reconcile the people and make a transition from this past to a shared future, [all this] to prevent revenge-taking and a repetition of these past horrible events. During the past two decades, unfortunately, unpleasant incidents have happened in the country during which people from all groups and tribes have been affected and made victims.
I am of the belief that, to the same degree as the Turkic peoples, my other compatriots, including Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras, have all been victimized and oppressed. The pain is common to all of us.
War, as the worst human act, has unfortunately created victims from among our blameless people and has consequently caused us to mistrust and keep distant from each other. There should, previously, have been a brave declaration of the bitter reality in [our] country.
Today, as we go into presidential electionns with the commitment to change the country's future history, we want this history to be built on the basis of brotherhood, fairness, reconciliation and justice and for there not to be a repetition of past sufferings.
Taking advantage of this historic opportunity, I would like to state clearly that, just as my fellow citizens suffered in Jawzjan, Mazar and Faryab, our other ethnicities throughout this country also suffered in different ways during the past bitter episodes.
As the famous saying goes, in the civil wars of the past two decades, there have been no white doves. The time has come for all of us to make apologies for our policies’ negative consequences to the people, across the country. I would like to be the first person to say that we apologize to all who have suffered on both sides of the wars and to strive to have the current election as a new page in our country’s politics in which war is not the solution for [our] differences, rather that, through tolerance of each other, reform and dialogue, we arrive at national unity.
I hope from this day onwards, we do not allow a repeat of such bitter incidents. We want to be the initiator of a new era and a new tradition, inn which others will also declare their past mistakes bravely and with courage and that all of us can join together to prevent a repetition of these mistakes.
If our noble people give us an opportunity to serve, we are committed to use this historic opportunity to heal the pains of our people; we will make every effort to return those internally displaced [to their homes], and we commit to make Afghanistan a common home for all Afghans in which pain and oppression will not re-occur. We want Afghanistan to be turned into a home for all, where Afghans are respected and all Afghans accept each other based on the principal of respect for the law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in a prosperous country.
May God bless us all
General Abdul Rashid Dostum
Founder and leader of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan