In the years preceding September 11, and for a couple years after, it was clear that one group had mastered public relations while all others has neglected it completely, or at least failed in their attempts. Thanks to its charismatic and articulate spokesmen, the Shura-yi Nazar of Ahmed Shah Massoud became the darling of the western press. These spokesmen, Massoud Khalili and Dr. Abdullah, were, and still are, cosmopolitan, stylishly dressed, intelligent, skilled at speaking to Europeans, and fluent in English. Khalili and Abdullah were quite comfortable in any capital of Europe or in Washington, DC. They could argue their case in a passionate and persuasive manner. While they were unsuccessful in securing any significant assistance from western government, they did manage to generate sympathetic and positive coverage by the media.
More significantly, Shura-yi Nazar invited reporters and authors to their base in Afghanistan. Reporters and others were welcomed in the Panjshir Valley, where they would find a dedicated guesthouse ready for them. Here they could meet with Khalili and Abdullah, and of course with Ahmed Shah Massoud himself. So here reporters would find themselves in a beautiful, scenic valley dotted with idyllic villagers full of people who revere Massoud. Most importantly for the reporter, they could converse in English or French. And Massoud was always up to the challenge of arguing his case. By all accounts he was charismatic, brave, stoic and articulate. And whether talking to a reporter of some unknown European newspaper or to the French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, he was ready to make a good impression.
So if Massoud and Shura-yi Nazar were the masters of public relations, who were, and in some cases still are, the epitome of the public relations disaster in the pre-September 11 era? That would be pretty much everybody else, aside from a few irrelevant royalists. You may have noted that nearly every commander in Afghanistan is described as a “Warlord.” But not Massoud. He usually gets adjectives affixed to his name, usually “heroic,” “legendary,” etc…
It would take all day to describe all the big players in Afghanistan, so I’ll stick to one commander who has attracted a significant amount of negative press: General Rashid Dostum. Dostum is handicapped from the start by his status as a former communist general. Additionally, many people in Kabul do not remember him fondly from the early civil war years. Many reporters and authors frame him as a leader who is always changing alliances and betraying his allies. The adjectives usually attached to Dostum are “brutal,” “bear-like,” “treacherous,” etc…
Unlike Massoud, Dostum never had, and to the best of my knowledge, does not currently have a spokesman as skilled as Abdullah and Khalili. There were no English-speaking representatives to send to the west and Dostum apparently didn’t have reporters knocking on his door to interview him. Even if he had courted the western media, the reporter who showed up would have found a no-nonsense blue-collar type of guy. He wouldn’t be reading Persian poetry or opining on philosophical conundrums. It would be more likely that, as a former plumber/pipe-fitter, he would be busy lecturing a mechanic for replacing a water pump in an armored personnel carrier without checking for a faulty thermostat first.
By default, Dostum allowed his rivals and enemies to define him. Perhaps if there was an ethnic Uzbek-Afghan Diaspora in the west on the scale of the Tajik and Pashtun Diaspora, Dostum may have had somebody to defend him. The only well-known Afghan-Uzbek in the west is Indiana University’s Nazif Shahrani. But he is dedicated to teaching anthropology, not engaging in Afghan politics [note: his brother Neamatullah is Minister of Religious Affairs]. And Bloomington, Indiana is not exactly just down the street from New York and DC media headquarters.
Could an effective spokesman have effectively defended Dostum? The answer is yes. A quantitative and qualitative analysis of human rights abuses committed by his troops does not put him in the lead as top bad guy in Afghanistan. As for his changing alliances, it can be soundly argued that he did not betray his allies, but that his allies progressively marginalized him to the point that he would be subordinate to his “ally.” This was done by both Najibullah and Massoud/Rabbani. In regards to his communist past, it would seem a logical choice for a member of an ethnic group that was systematically discriminated against in the modern Afghan state to join a group that held out the promise of equality.
Aside from defending Dostum from the usual allegations, an effective public relations spokesman could note that the city of Mazar-i Sharif and the parts of the north under his control during the communist era, and until Dostum’s defeat by the Taliban, were effectively administered and he was regarded as a legitimate leader (Most “warlords” have a certain level of popularity in their home region).
Without any public relations effort there was no defense against the many reporters who selectively quoted from Ahmed Rashid’s book “Taliban,” or who used Tajiks and Pashtuns as their sources on Dostum.
It is certain that Dostum is no angel. You don’t hold territory in 1980s and 1990s Afghanistan by being a nice guy. He probably did knock off his Uzbek rival Rasul Pahlavan and he probably did have a thief run over with a tank right before Ahmed Rashid showed up for a short interview. And his troops committed atrocities for sure. Human Rights Watch has listed the latter crimes. However, it should be noted he is listed as one of many human rights abusers, right alongside Jamiat and Shura-yi Nazar leaders. But my main point is that Dostum, and others like him, never had a chance in the arena of public relations due to circumstance beyond their control and outside their attention.
For a neutral evaluation of Dostum see: Giustozzi, Antonio. (2005) ‘The Ethnicisation of an Afghan Faction: Junbesh-I-Milli from its Origins to the Presidential Elections’, Crisis States Programme Working Paper, No. 67. Crisis States Research Center (September 2005) Available online at: http://www.crisisstates.com/download/wp/WP67.pdf
For positive evaluations see: Marlowe, Anne. (2002). “Warlords and Leaders: The hidden agendas behind press coverage of the Afghan War,” Available at:
Williams, Brian Glyn. (2005) ‘Target Dostum: The Campaign Against Northern Alliance Warlords’, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 3, Issue 20. (October 21, 2005) Available online at: http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/uploads/ter_003_020.pdf
Salon.com has an interview where he comes across as reasonably articulate: dir.salon.com/story/people/feature/2002/01/08/dostum/index.html
For a negative evaluation of Dostum just look for his name in the index of whatever book on Afghanistan you have handy. Google also returns some very negative articles after the first page or so. Human Rights Watch lists numerous allegations against him at www.hrw.org