SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan — The name Dostum means "everyone's friend," and in a certain sense that sums up the political career of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum: from Soviet-supported militia leader during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan to close ally of the United States after 9-11.
Dostum, an Uzbek born to peasants in this far-flung province of Jowzjan, is a man steeped in the Afghan tradition of warlords who rule their regions with cunning and have no worries about spilling blood or changing "friendships" with the prevailing political winds.
His shifts over the past 20-plus years have made and unmade successive Afghan governments. Dostum's betrayal of the government in 1992 doomed the puppet regime the Russians had left behind after their main troop withdrawal.
In 1994, Dostum tried to seize power by pushing his forces into Kabul — leaving a trail of destruction along the way — but was routed by another commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Two years later, as the Taliban were about to conquer Kabul, Dostum announced an alliance with Massoud.
Allegations that Dostum oversaw the killings of hundreds or possibly thousands of prisoners of war in 2001, had their bodies dumped in the desert and later sent bulldozers to remove the evidence come as no surprise to many Afghans.
"General Dostum is a dictator," said Juma Khan Hamdard, a former governor of Jowzjan. Dostum's followers staged a protest against Hamdard in May 2007, which led to a fracas in which at least seven people were killed and more than 40 were wounded, with Hamdard and Dostum blaming each other for the violence.
"They invaded the entire city. They surrounded my house," Hamdard said of the incident, which led to him being transferred to a different province.
Maj. Gen. Fazaluddin Ayar, the police chief of the province from 2004 to 2006, put it succinctly: "The reality is that for the time being, General Dostum is more powerful than the government (in the north). He has more sovereignty."
Because of that influence, and the risk of destabilizing the region if it were directly challenged, many Western officials are reluctant to talk when they're asked about Dostum.
The commander of a group of troops stationed with the provincial reconstruction team in Sheberghan denied knowing that the grave site in the desert had been disturbed, but he said that if Dostum were involved, the Afghan authorities would be powerless to act.
"In my opinion, they can't do anything about that," said the Finnish captain, Eino Kontiola. "They can investigate it, but if there's a man with that much power, he can always keep himself free."
One of Kontiola's political officers described the situation as "feudal" and said it wasn't likely to change.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY