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Pakistan Role in Afghan War Upsets Key General's Men

But will Rashid Dostum be kingmaker or peacemaker in conflict?

Suddenly, Abdul Rashid Dostum is the man to watch. The northern Afghan warlord currently holds the delicate balance of power in a country largely destroyed by 18 years of war and brought to the brink in recent weeks.

Courting General Dostum are both the recently ousted government in Kabul and its archenemies, the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban militia. Until recently, Dostum had been content to watch these varying forces pummel each other.

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But the fall of the capital, Kabul, and the Taliban's northward march into Dostum's territory made the enigmatic former Communist think again. When he suddenly found Taliban troops on his doorstep earlier this month, he hastily dispatched his forces to head them off.

That move and his recent attempts to broker a cease-fire between the warring factions, have thrust him into the spotlight and the question on every one's lips is: "Which way will he jump?"

In the past two weeks, he signed a defense pact with Ahmad Shah Masoud, the legendary military commander of the ousted government. The pact promises to defend the other if attacked by a third party.

Dostum has also met with the Taliban's acting foreign minister, Mullah Ghaus, and Pakistan's interior minister, Naseerullah Babar.

Mr. Babar is widely believed to have a big say in the running of the Taliban, if not the final say. He has made six visits here in the past week and sources close to Dostum, who commands most of northern Afghanistan, say they find it strange that Pakistan's interior minister is negotiating on behalf of the Taliban. They say Babar was not invited and has no visa to enter Afghanistan. The current joke in town is that Babar has not realized there is a border and thinks he is still in Pakistan.

When asked about Pakistan's involvement, Babar said "When you are trying to bring peace it's not interference. When you are doing something for your own purpose, then yes, it's interference...."

Western observers in Dostum's stronghold and regional administrative center, believe he is backing and will continue to back the ousted government. "Dostum has nothing in common with the Taliban," says one observer. "He doesn't understand them or what they are doing."

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It is widely believed that Dostum hopes soon to announce a cease-fire between Masoud and the Taliban. He has asked the Taliban to agree to this, but they have not yet given an answer.

One Taliban condition is said to be an exchange of prisoners. Masoud is reported to want the same, but in addition, he wants Kabul demilitarized. Dostum is also thought to want the Taliban out of Kabul and is prepared to push them out if necessary.

Masoud's forces are now just a few miles from Kabul's center and in control of the nearby and vital Baghram military air base. Journalists in the area have reported that Dostum's forces have formed a second line of defense at Baghram but there has been no public acknowledgment of this by the general.

"Masoud could not do what he has done," says one Western analyst, "without the full support of Dostum, not just logistical but on every level including fighting." Dostum, meanwhile, has consistently denied that his troops are fighting at the side of Masoud's.

"Masoud has not asked us up to now," says Gen. Alem Razm, a political adviser to Dostum.

But the relationship between Masoud and Dostum hasn't always been easy. In the past, ties have been tumultuous with both double-crossing each other.

After his coup against Masoud failed in 1994, Dostum retreated to the north where he consolidated his power and was ignored by the warlords. However, now the same people are anxiously building bridges to the man, who may turn out to be their savior.

His popularity in the region he controls rests largely on the tolerance, peace, and relative stability he has brought. He will be keen to avoid major involvement in the fight for Kabul but also cannot ignore the Taliban threat.

And if Dostum's forces do get openly involved, they appear confident of trouncing the Taliban. "To predict the results of fighting is difficult," says Gen. Yusuf, a Dostum commander. "But if the Taliban want to start a fight, I can say it is not to their benefit. The war would be a severe one. We are still powerful."

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