KABUL — A notorious Afghan warlord accused of allowing the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners and then destroying the evidence returned to Afghanistan Sunday night as part of what appears to be a political deal brokered with President Hamid Karzai.
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum arrived from Turkey just four days before the Afghan presidential elections, in which his support could be key to Karzai's chances of securing more than 50 percent of the vote - the threshold for avoiding a second round of elections.
Karzai has come under criticism for consolidating his position by striking deals with warlords like Dostum and those suspected of connections to the country's opium trade.
Dostum comes with considerable baggage. There have been repeated allegations that his men were responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 alleged Taliban and al Qaida prisoners in late-2001, a time when Dostum worked closely with U.S. special forces and intelligence teams in northern Afghanistan.
A McClatchy investigation last year uncovered information suggesting that Dostum later directed the removal of the remains of those slain prisoners, destroying the evidence of the original crime.
President Barack Obama recently said that he's asked his national security team to collect as many facts as possible about the incident to determine whether to launch a full investigation.
Seamak Herawi, a spokesman for Karzai, told reporters that there was no reason why Dostum could not return home.
"There is no legal obstacle for Gen. Dostum's return to Afghanistan," he said.
Hundreds of jubilant members of Dostum's Jumbish Party converged on Kabul International Airport to greet Dostum, an Uzbek former communist general who repeatedly switched sides in the devastating civil war that erupted between Islamic guerrilla groups after the Soviet occupation.
His head clad in a silver turban and his shoulders draped with a chapan, a traditional long green coat, Dostum rode into the city followed by his loyalists and rifle-toting members of his private militia in a caravan of honking cars and buses.
More supporters were awaiting him at his massive red three-story mansion in Sherpur, a neighborhood filled with "poppy palaces" allegedly built with opium profits.
Dostum's name has been in the news recently - first in a McClatchy report last December that made public the fact that a gravesite in a north Afghanistan desert known as Dasht-e Leili had been dug up, and then again this July in The New York Times, which reported on the lack of U.S. investigation into the original incident.
Locals interviewed by McClatchy last year said that it was common knowledge that Dostum's men were responsible for having removed the bones of the dead men with bulldozers or similar equipment.
Satellite imagery obtained by Physicians for Human Rights indicates that the digging took place as early as 2006. There appears to have also been subsequent excavation last year - a McClatchy reporter saw three smaller ditches that were apparently dug between June and November.
The site is still not being guarded by either Western or Afghan forces, according to Nathaniel Raymond, the lead investigator on the Dasht-e Leili case for Physicians for Human Rights.
"Though Dostum has returned to Kabul, he still should not be allowed to return to a position of power in the Afghan government until a full, transparent investigation of the Dasht-e Leili incident is complete," Raymond said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashari said he could not discuss whether Dostum was under investigation for the alleged removal of the remains.
Dostum was put under house arrest in Afghanistan last year after he and his men were said to have dragged a rival leader out of his home, beaten him and his family and then held the man hostage. Then, after a meeting with Karzai in late-November, he left for Turkey.
Dostum at the time was stripped of his mostly honorary title of chief of staff to the commander in chief, but it was later reinstated.
Dostum has denied that the prisoners in 2001 died in large numbers, a position that he repeated in a statement last month, saying it was "confirmed by those who were responsible for accepting the surrender of these prisoners of war -- including doctors and members of the military forces of the United States. In addition, it was reported to me that the U.S. Defense Department had also confirmed this."
Some of the former prisoners, though, have said that they were stuffed into shipping containers in which hundreds of men suffocated to death or died from gunshots fired by Dostum's men.
On Sunday, Dostum made a brief statement to thank Karzai for allowing him to return before retreating behind closed doors. The pair are expected to travel to Dostum's hometown of Sheberghan, the capital of northern Jawzjan Province, on the final day of campaigning for Thursday's presidential election.
Hundreds of his followers milled around the garden and glitzy reception hall of his mansion, whose inlaid floor of green, black and white stone, carved wooden columns and crystal chandeliers testified to Dostum's immense wealth.
Haji Shah Mahmoud Nazari, a Jumbish candidate for the provincial council in northeastern Takhar Province, dismissed the allegations against Dostum as the "propaganda of Dostum's enemies and the propaganda of the enemies of the Jumbish Party."
"He came to participate in a very historical election which will determine the next five years of the country's future," he said. "He wants to be beside his people."
Sayed Ahmad Sayed, a Jumbish official who is heading Karzai's campaign in northern Fariab Province, said Dostum could deliver more than 1 million votes to the president's re-election drive.
(Landay reported from Kabul and Lasseter from Moscow.)
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