Our Saintly Bastard

A love letter to an Uzbek warlord.

The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime, by Brian Glyn Williams, Chicago Review Press, 352 pages, $28.95.

In 2008, when the former Indonesian ruler Suharto died, the Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott penned a glowing assessement. Woolcott knew Suharto personally, and in his view the dictator was "friendly, relaxed, and willing to listen" as well as "shrewd," "reliable," and possessed of a "firm resolve." Woolcott credited Suharto with Indonesia's stability and economic progress from 1975 through 1995, and he said that criticism of him had been "exaggerated." As to the exact nature of these criticisms, he was chary. He mentioned Suharto's corruption, but failed to explain that it had left Indonesia particularly unprepared to weather the Asian financial crisis. He mentioned human rights abuses in general, but managed to avoid touching on the genocide that Suharto used to bring himself to power, incidentally killing between 500,000 and 1 million people. Suharto, in Woolcott' view, was a basically decent and sagacious ruler with some minor flaws, rather than a thug and bully up to his waist in blood, one of the worst war criminals of the notoriously vicious 20th century.

I was thinking of Woolcott's rosy Suharto as I paged through Brian Glyn Williams' The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime. Not that the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum is anything like the butcher that Suharto was. From his early days fighting with the Soviets against the U.S.-backed mujahedeen through the post-Soviet civil war and his long fight against the Taliban, Dostum never wracked up anything like genocide-level death tolls. The worst atrocity of which he has been accused—the slaughter of hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war after the 2001 US invasion—would barely rate with one of Suharto's minor acts of evil.

But even if Dostum is no competition for Suharto, there is a certain similarity in the way in which the two are treated by their foreign intermediaries. As with Woolcott and Suharto, Williams met Dostum personally, and the force of that encounter seems to have paralyzed the writer's critical functions.

In 2011, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote that Dostum and the other Afghan warlords with whom the U.S. worked "were not saints, but then saints are in short supply in this world." Williams quotes Rumsfeld approvingly, then goes on to give an account of Dostum that does in fact paint him as something very like a saint. Williams waxes rhapsodic about Dostum's "charisma and farsightedness" in his "lonely battle against the fanatics." He praises his "benevolent rule" over the mini-state he carved out around Mazar-al-Sharif in the early 1990s. He notes that Dostum took multiple wives, but assures us that he did it only for practical political reasons, not because he really wanted to. Throughout the book, Dostum forgives his enemies and fights for secular freedom and moderate Islam. He comes across as a kind of gruff, inspiring George Washington of the steppe, without our founding father's unfortunate soft spot for slavery.

There is, in fact, every reason to believe that Dostum's battle in Afghanistan is more righteous, as these things go, than was the American Revolution. Taxation without representation looks like pretty small beer in comparison to the Taliban's orgy of repression and cruelty. And I don't have any reason to doubt Williams' documentation of Dostum's support for women's rights and education. If we're going to be bombing folks on behalf of someone in Afghanistan, Dostum seems like as good a recipient of our deadly largesse as anyone.

Still, there's a difference between signing on to help some bastard because he's our bastard and pretending that an unelected, utterly undemocratic, violent participant in ethnic conflicts on the other side of the world is some sort of icon of truth, justice, and the American way. Williams is clearly dazzled by Dostums' stories of Uzbek horsemen riding across the hills with American firepower scattering the Taliban before them. But he somehow fails to mention other collaborative ventures—specifically, the way that U.S. officials have stonewalled efforts to investigate Dostum's killing of Taliban POWs. Instead, Williams simply notes that "no investigation was ever launched" into the deaths and insists that reports of killings are the result of sensationalized western journalism. He does not, that I could find, mention the sober (and sobering) investigations of Amnesty International Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi, nor the forensic analysis by Physicians for Human Rights that Zarifi discusses.

The result of Williams' advocacy is clear enough. If Dostum is a heroic freedom fighter rather than a morally dubious killer, then our participation in Afghanistan is a heroic fight for freedom, rather than a morally dubious slog through a quagmire of ethnic violence. If our bastard isn't a bastard, but is instead a benevolent dispenser of sweetness, light, and women's liberation, then our moral crusade is a moral crusade and should continue on to victory, no matter the quibbles of the troublesome and insufficiently responsible free press. Dostum's anti-Taliban righteousness, like Suharto's anti-Communist righteousness, is also our righteousness. Thus its appeal.

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  • CE||

    America's warlord? A book about Obama?

  • GILMORE||

    i think this review may have benefited from more backstory on dostom than provided - calling him 'america's warlord' is a stretch when you consider how often the US - via Karzai - has tried to marginalize, discredit, and defang Dostum. The US has repeatedly tried to sideline and wash their hands of him, and i think the story is more complicated than this piece allows for, which suggests kind of an either/or reality. FWiW, the authors work on dostom for FP has usually been pretty good, so i see no reason the book shouldnt. at the very least he's a fascinating character, one who sometimes compares favorably to his peers.... say, like Karzai himself

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