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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
An encounter with General Dostum
By the BBC's Alan Johnston
Early one morning in the spring of 1997, I was standing on the Soviet-made airstrip outside Mazar-e-Sharif. Beyond the tarmac the flat steppe-land of Central Asia gave way to a line of mountains - a spur of the Hindu Kush range.
Off to the left, sat a dilapidated old military helicopter that looked badly in need of repair. I asked a militia officer where the helicopter was that was supposed to take me to the frontline. Disturbingly, he just pointed at the machine that looked badly in need of repair.
Eventually, the pilot coaxed the clattering, shuddering contraption into the air - and we were off, low over the steppe on our way to the battleground, and an appointment with General Abdur Rashid Dostum.
The general started his career on the communist side of the war, as a security officer in a factory during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But he quickly expanded his horizons. He transformed his security unit into a fighting force drawn from his own Uzbek ethnic group, which dominates his part of northern Afghanistan.
Soon his men were being used by the communist government as shock troops against the Mujaheddin guerrillas. They were sent to do their brutal business in areas where the hold of the regime was most tenuous. And when General Dostum eventually switched sides, and allied himself with the guerrillas, it spelt the end for the Kabul government.
By the time that I'd climbed aboard that helicopter in 1997, the war had brought the army of the Taleban movement to the borders of General Dostum's northern stronghold. But that spring morning, the word was that his militia had made some advances on the long frontline in the rolling hills of Badghis province.
The helicopter put us down close to the front. The place bustled with General Dostum's fighters, many in traditional Uzbek dress - tightly bound turbans and long padded coats for keeping out the icy winds of the steppe.
Far away, across a plain, a column of armed horsemen was making its way down a hillside. They hit the flat ground and broke into a canter. This was Uzbek cavalry, perhaps 100-strong, surging towards us, dust rising from the pounding hooves. And there at the centre of the line - on a white charger - rode General Dostum himself.
As the riders reached us they reined in hard. There was a great neighing of horses and stamping of hooves. We were engulfed in dust, and the gathered soldiers roared in salute of their commander-in-chief. The General dismounted and strode towards me, a huge man in a turban, his Uzbek jacket reaching down to his riding boots, and in his hand he carried a whip.
Prisoners of war
He was orchestrating what amounted to a grandiose photo-opportunity. His fighters had had some success, and he wanted to make sure that the BBC and the outside world knew about it.
In his deep, booming voice he joked with his troops and gave a running commentary as he strode down a line of captured Taleban vehicles. The General glowered briefly at a forlorn group of six Taleban prisoners of war.
He lined up his senior officers and introduced them to me one-by-one. He'd been angered by some report in the media that his generals had been absent from the front. He wanted to make the point that they were, in fact, all there putting in a good day's work.
Next a string of jeeps took us rocketing up a hillside. At the summit, arrangements had been made for a picnic like no other. There were carpets and cushions spread on the grass, and there was chicken and rice and fruit and nuts.
The guns on the frontline were silent, and as we ate and drank we gazed at the hills that turned blue in the distance as they rose and fell towards Iran. The General talked of politics and war, and at one stage he pointed with a chicken bone at a peak off to the left and said "See that mountain -- the one with the snow on it? Well I captured it three days ago."
As it turned out, one of the commanders lounging on the cushions at that picnic betrayed General Dostum a few months later. It was the kind of act of grand treachery that is very much a part of Afghan warfare.
General Dostum lost his frontline in the hills of Badghis and soon the whole of his northern stronghold was gone. The general endured a brief exile in Turkey, but stormed back within months to retake his lands. In another stunning reversal he lost them once more to the Taleban the next year.
And Mazar-e-Sharif could be about to fall yet again. General Dostum is back in the north, and he isdetermined to drive the Taleban from Mazar one last time.
He has complained that he lacks heavy weaponry. He iss reported to be using riders armed with kalashnikovs - just like the cavalry that I saw four years ago before that picnic on the Badghis front.
So here we are, at the start of the 21st Century and Mazar-e-Sharif is still locked in a scene that could be drawn from the darkest passages in Central Asia's history. Armed horsemen laying siege to a city on the steppe - it is a drama in which Genghis Khan would have felt at home.
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