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Why are our boys fighting and dying for a brutal Uzbek warlord?

Elections in Afghanistan will give even more power to the likes of General Dostum

One of the rather under-reported and underappreciated angles to the international media's coverage of the Afghan presidential elections this week has been the debilitating and depressing influence of warlords on the Afghan political process - and, in particular, the vast array of warlords backing Hamid Karzai's re-election campaign.

The Independent, however, devotes its cover today to this particular story:

The return of General Rashid Dostum, a politically treacherous ex-warlord, has heightened fears of yet another vicious cycle of bloodshed and lawlessness. Forced to flee Afghanistan last year after claims that he brutalised a political rival, General Dostum is - to the horror of western diplomats - now emerging as a key player who could be instrumental in delivering an election victory for the president.

Best known for allegedly overseeing a massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners following the US-led invasion in 2001, General Dostum controlled swaths of northern Afghanistan for years. He remains the de facto leader of the country's ethnic Uzbeks and his return is likely to consolidate their vote behind Mr Karzai. But the warlord's triumphant return from Turkey on Sunday has exposed Mr Karzai to renewed accusations that even if he wins the election he will remain in hock to thugs and human rights abusers.

At least 204 British troops have died trying to defend Afghanistan's government from the threat of the Taliban, but western diplomats fear the patchwork of alleged war criminals in a future administration will make it nigh on impossible for Nato troops to garner support for the Kabul government.

President Karzai, who has made a series of backroom deals with unsavoury mujahedin leaders to secure the votes they control, gave General Dostum carte blanche to return last week, in exchange for his support. General Dostum is said to have once strapped a soldier accused of theft to the tracks of a tank and driven him around until the man's body was reduced to shreds.

Karzai's reliance on Dostum for political support is not only immoral, it is tremendously naive. Dostum has a long history of changing sides and switching allegiances, having fought for and against the communists during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and then, during the civil war in the 1990s, for and against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Islamist mujahedin. His presence in a new Afghan government would be disastrous for that country's future and for that government's credibility.

British troops are now taking casualties in Afghanistan in record numbers, and British ministers claim our military presence is to ensure a safe and stable Afghanistan in which democratic elections can take place. Yet they say little about the corrupt, brutal and violent coalition of unsavoury and undemocratic characters that Hamid Karzai has assembled in support of his re-election campaign. The United States, as usual, is no better, having turned a blind eye to the alleged crimes of Dostum and others in recent years. As James Risen reported in the New York Times last month:

After a mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode, according to government officials and human rights organizations.

American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation -- sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups -- because the warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001, several officials said. They said the United States also worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official.

The Obama administration has failed so far to launch an investigation into Dostum's alleged crimes and failed this weekend to prevent the Uzbek general's triumphant return to Afghanistan from unofficial exile in Turkey. Meanwhile, our boys continue to fight and die for "a stable and democratic" Afghanistan - but Karzai's ties to warlords like Dostum will leave him badly compromised and his government weakened, and will leave our own military misadventure in that war-torn country clearly lacking any moral justification whatsoever.