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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Who Will Stop the Taliban?

With a key rival in disarray, the zealots march on

By Robin Ajello and Anthony Davis


BETRAYAL IS AS AFGHAN as holy war and AK47s. No one knows that better than Abdul Rashid Dostam. For months the powerful warlord had been half expecting his ambitious deputy to switch sides and join the ascendant Taliban. Now the only-too-thinkable has happened, and the potential strategic fallout is reverberating around the region. With Dostam's well-armed faction divided and in disarray, the ultra-radical Taliban may be poised to control the entire nation and the borders of Central Asia.

The betrayer is Gen. Abdul Malik -- and he and Dostam have never been exactly drinking buddies. Both began their rise to power in the mid-'80s when they were serving in the same army unit. They could not be more different. Malik was a rich kid, the son of a powerful Uzbek land-owning family from northern Faryab province. Dostam is a peasant's son from neighboring Jowzjan province, who muscled his way up the ranks to command his own battalion. "When we started off together I was a major," Malik told Asiaweek in a rare 1992 interview. "Dostam was just a captain."

But it was the boozing and brawling Dostam who rose fast and high, eventually commanding a division that would become indispensable to the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. Later he would himself switch sides, teaming up with Malik's powerful brother Rasool (a provincial governor) and establishing an autonomous fiefdom in the north. From that time, Malik, the urbane, Soviet-trained Russian and Turkish speaker, acted as Dostam's foreign minister and practically ran the northern bureaucracy.

But jealousies and suspicions festered over the years as Dostam gathered military power and appointed loyalists and family members to powerful positions. Then last June, Malik's brother Rasool was assassinated, and Malik rushed home from a conference in the United States to take savage reprisals against the family of the dead assassin. Suspicion quickly focused on Dostam, whose rivalry and policy differences with Rasool had been growing increasingly acute.

Two months after the assassination, according to intelligence sources, Malik tried to convince Dostam to support the Taliban in their final drive on Kabul. No way, said Dostam. Instead, under pressure from Russia and Iran, he forged an anti-Taliban coalition. Then in February he uncovered a plot to shoot down his copter with a Stinger missile. "Since then Dostam has been trying to control Malik's every move," says an insider.

Apparently not zealously enough. Last week, Malik raised the white banners of Taliban revolt, seized Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, and denounced Dostam a "bad Muslim." Before long, Dostam portraits in Maimana were being torn down. Malik's fighters captured scores of Dostam's commanders and apparently disarmed thousands of his troops. Meanwhile, clashes erupted in many parts of Dostam's fiefdom and also in populous Kunduz city to the east.

United Nations sources tell Asiaweek that Taliban troops have now crossed the strategically crucial Murghab River, are advancing, unopposed, deep into Dostam territory and heading for his stronghold. "The situation is every bit as serious and significant as it's being made out," says a Western military observer. "The Taliban have at least 10,000 troops in the west, along with some 9,000 [Malik loyalists] who have now joined them. This is a very hefty blow to Dostam."

Whether Dostam, his western flank now gaping open, can retrieve the situation is uncertain at best. He still retains the loyalty of several key combat formations. But many units have not been paid in months; morale is brittle and spirits will not have been improved by the loss of strategic territory, or Malik's defection, though the anti-Taliban forces reportedly were trying to woo him back into the fold.

Moreover, the Taliban planned well. On the day after Malik revolted, more than 3,000 Taliban troops launched a full-scale offensive against the Shebar Pass, guarding the gates to Bamian in central Afghanistan. Should Shebar Pass and Bamian fall, the wily Dostam will face another strategic break-through to the south. That could trigger a domino-style collapse of defections and defeats, paving the way for the final Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. And this is a group that did not even exist three years ago.


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