SHIBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A former militia chief, whose return to Afghanistan days before an election could tip the balance in favor of Hamid Karzai, said Wednesday he had not made a last-minute deal to back the president.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, who enjoys the overwhelming backing of ethnic Uzbeks in the north of Afghanistan, returned from exile in Turkey Sunday and staged a massive rally in support of Karzai the next day in his bastion of Shiberghan.
His return raised international alarm that Karzai had made deals with former warlords who once ruled the country to bring them back to power in return for delivering their votes to him.
Dostum won 10 percent of the vote in Afghanistan’s last presidential election in 2004, and his support could make the difference for Karzai, who is facing the prospect of a second round if he fails to secure an outright majority Thursday.
“I have no personal agreement with Karzai,” Dostum told Reuters at his ostentatious pink and blue palace in Shiberghan.
He said he was a member of a political party that had already decided to back Karzai, and that his decision to return was intended to increase turnout in the election.
“The people ... they became somewhat sick while I was away ... I heard them say, ‘If General Dostum doesn’t come here, we won’t vote’,” Dostum told Reuters.
“I thought, God forbid people don’t vote, so I came here to make sure that people vote,” he said.
After Dostum’s sudden, last-minute return to the country, both the United States and the United Nations expressed concern that he might be given a future role in a Karzai government in return for his support in the election.
A U.S. official said Dostum may be responsible for “massive war crimes.” United Nations spokesman Aleem Siddique said Afghanistan “needs more competent politicians and fewer warlords.”
Two days after his arrival, Dostum’s palace was teeming with hundreds of supporters lined up to see him and pay their respects in a “dast boosi,” or hand-kissing ceremony.
The general, who fought for Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed Communist government and later switched sides repeatedly during years of factional civil war, asked Reuters to speak loudly “because my hearing has been torn apart by years of war.”
Despite the international unease at his return to Afghanistan, Dostum described himself as “a friend of the international community and a friend of America and NATO.”
“My coming back will help peace and stability,” he said. “I want to sit with my American friends and make a plan so that within two or three years, we will secure all of Afghanistan.”
He sat for the interview in a large room lined with tightly stuffed sofas and arm chairs, wearing a traditional bright green Afghan chopan overcoat, similar to one often worn by Karzai.
Asked what type of job he would like if Karzai was to be re-elected, he said he was not interested in working as a cabinet minister, but would be interested in a security-related role.
He said he had repeatedly turned down offers to be one of Karzai’s two vice presidents.
“I have a lot of experience dealing with terrorism and if Karzai wants it, or our international friends who are battling terrorism want, I am prepared to work. Other than this, I’m not interested in becoming this or that minister,” he said.
“I am a practical person, give me something practical to do and I know Afghanistan very well and the region very well ... I can block the path of bloodshed and hostility.”
He denied blame for one of the main allegations of human rights abuse to which he is linked — the reported deaths of hundreds of Taliban prisoners his forces captured after they helped the United States defeat the militants in 2001.
Human rights groups have called for Dostum to be investigated for his role in the “Dasht-e Leili” massacre, named for the site where the detainees were reportedly buried. U.S. President Barack Obama has said the incident should be investigated.
“I didn’t kill one single Taliban hostage,” Dostum said.
“The United States of America, international friends, they should put together a group, a strong commission, to ask the truth,” he said.
“It wasn’t just General Dostum.”