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The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime

The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime

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by Brian Glyn Williams

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The Last Warlord tells the spellbinding story of the legendary Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a larger-than-life figure who guided US Special Forces to victory over the Taliban after 9/11. Having gained unprecedented access to General Dostum and his family and subcommanders, as well as local chieftains, mullahs, elders, Taliban prisoners, and


The Last Warlord tells the spellbinding story of the legendary Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a larger-than-life figure who guided US Special Forces to victory over the Taliban after 9/11. Having gained unprecedented access to General Dostum and his family and subcommanders, as well as local chieftains, mullahs, elders, Taliban prisoners, and women’s rights activists, scholar Brian Glyn Williams paints a fascinating portrait of this Northern Alliance Uzbek commander who has been shrouded in mystery and contradicting hearsay. In contrast to sensational media accounts that have mythologized the “bear of a man with a gruff laugh” who “some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death,” Williams carefully chronicles Dostum’s rise from peasant villager to Uzbek leader and skilled strategist who has fought a long and bitter war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda fanatics that have sought to repress his people. Also revealed is Dostum’s surprising history as a defender of women’s rights and religious moderation.

            In riveting detail The Last Warlord spotlights the crucial Afghan contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom: how the CIA contacted the mysterious warrior Dostum to help US Special Forces wage a covert war in the mountains of Afghanistan, how respect and even friendship quickly grew between the Afghan and American fighting men, and how Dostum led his nomadic people charging into war the same way his ancestors had—on horseback. The result was one of the most decisive campaigns in the entire war on terror. The Last Warlord shows that, far from serving as an exotic backdrop for American heroics, it was these horse-mounted descendents of the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan that allowed the American military to overthrow the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks.

            With the United States drawing down troops in 2014 and Dostum poised to re-enter the world stage to fight a resurgent Taliban, The Last Warlord is vital to understanding Afghanistan’s warlord culture and how it factors into Afghanistan’s past and future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Afghanistan is a challenging place to do research, and the dangers inherent in writing a biography of a mercurial warlord—while using as one’s primary source an extended interview with the man himself—are obvious. But Williams, who worked for the CIA in Afghanistan, is not your typical history professor, and his knowledge of and access to Uzbek Afghan culture allows him to craft a credible and captivating narrative. He admits that his account “doubtless contains stories that are half legend,” and while his book might not pass muster in an academic seminar, it does have the makings of a Hollywood biopic. Dostum, a larger-than-life figure in command of an ethnic militia in Northern Afghanistan, has been called the most powerful warlord in history, and is alternately revered as a pragmatic modernizer and champion of women’s rights who did more than anyone else to bring down the Taliban, and reviled as a sadist who slaughters his enemies by the thousands and frightens grown men to death with his laugh. Williams takes the hagiographic route, but Dostum’s story of never-ending battles, assassination attempts, and alliances forming and breaking in the blink of an eye is fascinating, whether he is regarded as hero or villain. 16-page color photo insert. Agent: Faye Swetky and D.J. Herda, Swetky Agency. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“A riveting account of a warlord’s rise to power that has all the drama, intrigue, and warfare of The Kite Runner, only this Afghan story is real.” —Scott C. Levi, associate professor of Central Asian history, Ohio State University

“A jewel. General Abdul Rashid Dostum is a crucial and colorful character in the United States’ stunning victory over the Taliban.”  —Peter Eichstaedt, author, Above the Din of War

"...will appeal mostly to academics and those with an intense interest in the collapse of the Taliban."—Kirkus Reviews

"Dostum’s story of never-ending battles, assassination attempts, and alliances forming and breaking in the blink of an eye is fascinating, whether he is regarded as hero or villain." —Publishers Weekly

The Last Warlord sheds essential light on the political challenges and drama that continue to grip Afghanistan. When the last regular US troops have left that country, the Uzbek fighter and politician Abdul Rashid—Dostum—as well as Tajiks, Hazaras, and Pashtun, will remain, and Williams’s book is an illuminating guide to what may lie ahead.” —Doug Stanton, New York Times bestselling author of In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers

The Last Warlord is an in-depth look at one of the most important figures of the war in Afghanistan. Dostum played a key role in the early years of the war, and Williams does a great job telling the story of a very complex man and the Americans that fought with him.” —Kevin Maurer, coauthor of No Easy Day

"Williams offers an intimate portrait not only of the warrior, but of the Afghan nation that so many have tried and failed to get their arms around." —Bubblews.com

Library Journal
Contemporary Afghanistan is characterized by several ethnic, ideological, religious, and geographic divisions. Over the past 30 years, several strongmen or "warlords" have played important roles in shaping Afghanistan's destiny. This book is a highly readable account of the meteoric rise of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan of Uzbek ethnicity and one of the most colorful and powerful "warlords" to have emerged in recent decades. Williams (Islamic history, Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth) chronicles Dostum's central role in the various iterations of Afghan crisis from the late 1970s to the present. Through extensive interviews with the warlord and his family, as well as with various local chieftains, Muslim clerics, women's rights activists, and even Taliban prisoners, Williams provides a fascinating description of Dostum's political maneuvering and the alliances he formed through the years. In some ways, Dostum has been a political survivor, aligning himself first against the Afghan Mujahedin fighting the Soviet army, then siding with them in what was later called the "Northern Alliance" to fight against the Taliban, both before and after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. VERDICT This is a valuable and informative book for inquiring readers of all levels, including journalists and policymakers.—NE
Kirkus Reviews
The turbulent history of Afghanistan and its most powerful and influential army general through the eyes of an American historian. Dubbing it one of his life's greatest challenges, Williams (Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America's Longest War, 2011), a former CIA tracker and Islamic history instructor, traveled extensively throughout central Asia to probe the region's historic bounty and, moreover, to discover the intriguing man behind the Taliban's demise, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Uzbek commander of the Northern Alliance opposition. Williams easily appreciated an area uniquely accommodating of both modern Western and traditional Afghan customs. Undeterred by its characteristic sand, heat and whipping windstorms, he writes excitedly of the 2003 and 2005 visits to Mazar-i-Sharif, where Dostum's imperial compound awaited him and where questions about the warlord's refuted reputation as either a ruthless drug baron or a respected leader of the Afghan people could finally be answered. Somewhat unexpectedly, though with aplomb, Williams charts Dostum's scrappy, "primitive" origins from army soldier to military warlord alongside the expansive history of Afghanistan, through Taliban fundamentalism, the assassination of military leader Ahmad Massoud, 9/11 and the play-by-play details of the warlord's American-assisted victory. As expected, the politics of war figures heavily throughout the book, as does Williams' version of Dostum's crucial role in redefining the area under his refined regime. Still, while the minute details of Afghanistan's vast history are mostly engaging, they absorb most of the book's promising exclusive-with-a-warlord punch, leaving the author's brief time interviewing Dostum and touring the grounds almost as an afterthought. More historic chronicle than biographic exposé--will appeal mostly to academics and those with an intense interest in the collapse of the Taliban.

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The Last Warlord

The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime

By Brian Glyn Williams

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2013 Brian Glyn Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-800-8



* * *

"When we heard about the terrorists' attacks on your country's towers, there was this strange silence. At that moment we all sensed everything was about to change. ... We sensed that the Americans would be coming to Afghanistan."

— General Abdul Rashid Dostum, anti-taliban commander of the Northern Alliance Opposition


As our Russian-made jeep pushed its way through the crowds that thronged the streets of this dusty Afghan city, I sneaked a peek at the Uzbek gunmen sitting on either side of me. The soldier on my right seemed to be staring out the window at the usual backdrop of dirty children, bicycling townsmen, burqa-clad women, and camels, so he became the target of my furtive glances. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, I tried hard not to focus on the AK-47 assault rifle sitting on his lap with its barrel pointing in my direction.

Then I noticed the most intriguing feature of the gun. There, underneath the gunman's dirty hand, I spied a sticker that he had affixed to the wooden stock of his rifle. It was a decal of a scantily clad Indian dancer or perhaps a Bollywood actress. Staring at the sticker, I asked myself, Is that a talisman of protection? Representation of forbidden fruit? Or simply a way to blunt the lethality of an instrument designed to kill?

The incongruity of the sticker and the weapon brought to my mind the Taliban soldiers, whose favorite means of conveyance had been Toyota Hilux Surf pickup trucks. Never before had there been a less apt brand name for a "technical" military vehicle. The average Toyota Hilux Surf came decorated with standard-issue pastel colors more suited for Miami's South Beach than the deserts of Afghanistan. The images of turbaned Taliban troopers, wearing amulets to ward off the evil eye and riding in the back of these brightly colored Japanese pickup trucks, would have been laughable had the Talibs not brought so much misery to the Afghan people.

But as I had come to discover during my brief time in this land, such bizarre blending of things Western-modern and Afghan -traditional did not seem to bother the Afghans; on the contrary, it defined them.

I realized at that moment that, if I was to truly understand the Afghans, I would have to accept such seeming contradictions with the same shrug of the shoulders that they did. This was how things were done in this country, which seemed to be trapped somewhere between the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century.

I sensed that for all my initial frustration with the Afghan way of doing things, I was gradually coming to enjoy their easy accommodation of things both Western and Afghan. If you judged the Afghans solely by their strange admixtures or their outward appearance, you missed the chance to probe beneath the surface and enter their world.

I realized that this rule of thumb certainly applied to the jang salars, the warlords of whom so much has been written in the press. While the warlords had been described in frightening abstract terms, I felt the urge to probe deeper to see who they were as three-dimensional human beings. I suspected that the warlords, who were as fundamental a part of life in Afghanistan as the video stores and beauty salons that had sprung up since the overthrow of the Taliban, had stories of their own to tell.

My quest to understand one warlord in particular had driven me from my safe home in Boston to a shrine town located in Afghanistan's frontier on the vast plains of Inner Asia. As a scholar of Central Asia, I was drawn to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance Uzbek commander whose exploits eerily mimicked those of his Turkic and Mongol ancestors. As I read over the ancient texts telling of the nomadic battles for control of the shrine of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, I was stunned by their similarity to Dostum's 2001 defeat of the Taliban. While the locals told me this was no coincidence but the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, I was skeptical. And this scholarly skepticism had driven me across the planet to uncover the real reasons for the locals' belief that the Talibans' overthrow had been foretold in the sixteenth century.

Lost in the jumbled recollections of my long journey from Boston to the capital, Kabul, and over the Hindu Kush mountains to Mazar-e-Sharif, I was startled when my driver announced in Uzbek, "Prepare yourself, khoja [teacher], we've arrived. The general is waiting to see you."

With those words I understood that perhaps the most dangerous stage of my journey to understand Afghanistan and its mysteries was about to begin. It was now time to meet a man who had been described as "one of the best equipped and armed warlords, ever."

Breathing deeply, I dispelled from my mind the images of war correspondents who had been killed for probing too deeply into Afghanistan's secrets, and stepped out of the truck and into the blazing sun. A cloud of fine sand instantly enveloped me as I followed my gun-toting companions across a dusty street to the general's headquarters. As usual, my Uzbek guards seemed to be completely unfazed by the heat, wind, and sand. But I was an American scholar, not a hardened Afghan fighter, and these annoyances were beginning to get to me. Blinking as I cleared a mixture of sweat and sand from my eyes, I hid my envy of my travel companions as I took in the sight of General Dostum's nondescript compound.

At first glance it appeared to be like any other faceless edifice in the sprawling maze of Mazar-e-Sharif, but for one menacing detail. Unlike the neighboring bullet-pocked mansions, this one had dozens of soldiers planted before its entrance. As we drew near the compound, several of them stared at me curiously while I tried to make out what they were saying about me in their Turkic-Mongol Uzbek tongue.

To them I was obviously a kelgindi, a foreigner, one of that strange breed of scruffy-bearded Westerners who had descended on their land to help them fight their Taliban oppressors after 9/11. Or perhaps I was an aid worker or a war correspondent from some exotic country they could never imagine.

For me the Uzbek soldiers were yet another example of the strange contradictions that had come to define Afghanistan. They were all armed with Russian weaponry — AK-47s, a couple of heavy PK machine guns, and enough rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to start a small war — but clad in what appeared to be standard-issue US Army uniforms.

The soldiers' Russian weaponry was not what struck me as odd. As a professor specializing in terrorism and ethnic violence in Central Eurasia, I had encountered similarly armed gunmen from Kosovo to Kazakhstan. The ubiquitous Automatic Kalashnikov 47 in particular seemed to be de rigueur for the insurgents, thugs, paramilitaries, and child soldiers I had run into in other war zones in the region. But Turko-Mongol militiamen dressed like camouflaged GI Joes? That was something one didn't see every day.

The US military had airlifted thousands of uniforms to the Northern Alliance Uzbek fighters in the opening days of 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom. Central Command's aim had been to provide these poorly clothed anti-Taliban tribal warriors with uniforms that would instill in them a sense of esprit de corps. The Pentagon hoped that the green-and-black fatigues would help the Uzbeks feel and act like a bona fide army.

And not just any army — the Americans wanted the Northern Alliance Uzbeks to know that they were part of the US-led coalition to eradicate the terrorists who had just attacked the US mainland on 9/11. The uniforms proclaimed that the Uzbeks, who had a score of their own to settle with the Taliban, had the full backing of the US government in prosecuting their proxy war.

While some skeptics had ridiculed what they considered the Pentagon's unrealistic hopes for a group of ragtag Northern Alliance opposition fighters against the Taliban, others felt they had real potential. After years of neglect and isolation by the West, Dostum's Uzbek rebels were chomping at the bit to go after their hereditary enemies, the Pashtun Taliban. Now they had the full support of a vengeful global superpower that had just awoken to the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan.

According to the US Special Forces Green Berets who subsequently fought alongside them, the Uzbeks' camouflage uniforms seemed to have done the trick. Proudly wearing their green camos (which, incidentally, were of zero value in blending into Afghanistan's uniformly brown terrain), they had ridden off to war much as their nomadic ancestors had, vowing to avenge themselves on their Taliban enemies.

But as the Uzbek cavalry charged into battle, many predicted catastrophe. Fighters on horseback had no place on the modern battlefield, some argued. The brave Uzbek riders would be massacred by the Talibans' modern firepower just as the Polish lancers had been in World War II when they had foolishly charged the Nazis' tanks. Despite all the romanticism associated with horse-mounted warfare, the era of equestrian warriors had come to an inglorious end with the advent of machine guns and mechanized armor.

But in what has to be one of the greatest upsets in modern military history, the Uzbek descendants of Genghis Khan proved the doubters wrong. In one of the most decisive campaigns of the entire war on terror, the hardy Uzbeks cut their way through one Taliban defensive line after another. Galloping through the smoke of supporting American satellite-guided bombs delivered by B-52s, they charged the Taliban's tanks, firing armor-piercing RPGs and Kalashnikovs from the hip. It was said to have been pure Hollywood: Uzbek riders swerving to avoid incoming tank rounds, blowing up tanks with RPGs, and clambering onto Taliban armor to place explosive charges.

Once they had gathered their momentum, they were unstoppable — and Dostum's Uzbeks had not relented until they had liberated the holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif and brought the Taliban house of cards crashing down in a matter of weeks. The US "invasion" of Afghanistan was over before Christmas and long before most US troops could be mobilized. That minor miracle begged one question: how had no more than two thousand lightly armed horsemen and a few dozen US troops defeated a Taliban force of as many as ten thousand men armed and equipped with better weapons and bolstered by fanatical al-Qaeda fighters?

The Uzbeks offered a simple answer that was classic Afghan in its self-obviousness and mixture of ancient and new. In addition to US close air support, they claimed that they had received the divine protection of malaks (angels) sent from the shrine of Mazar-e-Sharif to fight alongside them. Their seemingly suicidal charge had been prophesized centuries earlier by Sufi mystics. Their actions were part of a grand design that had been set in place long ago at a legendary battle between good and evil known as Kul-i-Malik (The Lake of the King).

More grounded (or perhaps more cynical) voices pointed out that the Uzbeks also had the support of a twelve-man US Special Forces A-Team code-named Tiger 02. This American Green Beret team and several US Air Force close air support combat controllers had called the fury of joint-direct-attack-ammunition bombs down from bombers and onto the Taliban as the Uzbeks charged them. If there were any heavenly beings operating in the Afghan theater of operation, they came in the form of lumbering B-52 bombers, not sword-bearing angels.

Regardless of who protected them, angels or US bombers, one thing was clear. The Uzbeks' assault was the most historic cavalry action since the fateful charge of Queen Victoria's nineteenth-century Light Brigade. But far from being gunned down like their doomed British counterparts, Dostum's Uzbek horsemen had emerged victorious and changed the course of history. In so doing, they had turned military doctrine on its head.

It should also be noted that the Uzbeks and their Special Forces comrades-in-arms delivered a much-needed victory to millions of grieving Americans. In light of the dejected mood in post-9/11 America, the Battle of Mazar became an instant sensation back home in the United States. When the classified photographs of a horse-mounted American Special Forces combat controller named Bart Decker and allied Uzbeks were beamed back to Washington, one stateside analyst forwarded them to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld promptly declassified them and displayed them to the US press corps.

Not to be outdone by his boss, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz publicly read a declassified after-action report from a Green Beret Tiger 02 Special Forces commander named Mark Nutsch, who rode with the Uzbeks. This colorful report was to become the most memorable eyewitness account of the entire proxy war in Afghanistan. It read as follows:

I am advising a man on how to best employ light infantry and horse cavalry in the attack against Taliban T-55s (tanks) and mortars, artillery, personnel carriers and machine guns — a tactic which I think became outdated with the introduction of the Gatling (machine) gun. (The Mujahadeen) have done this every day we have been on the ground. They have attacked with 10-round AKs per man, with PK gunners having less than 100 rounds, little water and less food. I have observed a PK gunner who walked 10-plus miles to get to the fight, who was proud to show me his artificial right leg from the knee down.

We have witnessed the horse cavalry bounding over watch from spur to spur to attack Taliban strong points — the last several kilometers under mortar, artillery and PK fire. There is little medical care if injured, only a donkey ride to the aid station, which is a dirt hut. I think (the Uzbek Mujahadeen) are doing very well with what they have. They have killed over 125 Taliban while losing only eight.

We couldn't do what we are (doing) without the close air support. Everywhere I go the civilians and Mujahadeen soldiers are always telling me they are glad the USA has come. They all speak of their hopes for a better Afghanistan once the Taliban are gone. Better go. (The local commander, Dostum) is finishing his phone call with (someone back in the States).

Wolfowitz obviously appreciated the irony of the fact that the first victory in "the first war of the twenty-first century" had been won by horse-mounted Special Forces riding alongside Central Asian "tribesmen" seemingly from the Middle Ages.

However, in the media frenzy that followed the subsequent "conquest" of the Texas-sized land of Afghanistan by no more than 350 US special operators (there was no Iraq-style mass US invasion of Afghanistan), the role of the indigenous Uzbeks was soon forgotten. Downplaying the Northern Alliance Uzbeks' contribution, CENTCOM (US Central Command) Commander General Tommy Franks, was to proclaim:

Tiger 02, the Special Forces team supporting General Abdul Rashid Dostum — led by a young captain, a seasoned master sergeant, and a lanky sergeant first class, whose noms de guerre were Mark, Paul, and Mike — fought one of the most tactically skillful and courageous small-unit actions in American military history. Facing determined enemy resistance, terrible weather, and mounting casualties among their indigenous troops, these Green Berets used maneuver and air power to destroy an army the Soviets had failed to dislodge with more than half a million men.

This sort of reporting tended to overlook the decisive military role of the indigenous Uzbek ground forces, whom Tommy Franks acknowledged took "mounting casualties."

Off record, however, one US Defense official admitted that without the help of Dostum's Northern Alliance Uzbeks, "I'm not sure where we'd be." As this sort of low-key report suggests, the Uzbeks were more than just the exotic backdrop for American heroism; they had provided the United States with the surrogate fighting force desperately needed to mop up the Taliban on the ground.

Recalling the Afghan campaign a year and a half after the event, it occurred to me that it had actually been more than just an inspiration for the subsequent "light" invasion of Iraq by fewer troops than many wanted. It had also been the ultimate Afghan-style juxtaposition: illiterate Uzbek horsemen mounted on sixty-dollar horses, coordinating their cavalry charges with state-of-the-art US bombers flying from distant aircraft carriers. The extraordinary turn of events defined this people's casual habitation of worlds both ancient and modern.

But the Afghans themselves did not blink an eye over the whole affair. No one in Afghanistan — not even the Uzbeks' legendary commander, General Dostum — found the confluence of Medieval-style cavalry tactics and satellite -guided ammunition to be at all odd. Dostum's riders had simply considered the American Special Forces to be vengeful malaks sent by Allah to rain his vengeance down on the Taliban.

What had struck General Dostum as strange was the fact that he and his men had not been properly thanked by their coalition partners when the campaign was over. Their crucial role in providing the ground force that helped deprive al-Qaeda of its sanctuary went largely unrecognized by their American allies.


Excerpted from The Last Warlord by Brian Glyn Williams. Copyright © 2013 Brian Glyn Williams. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Brian Glyn Williams, PhD, is a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth. He has worked for the Central Intelligence Agency tracking suicide bombers in Afghanistan and is the author of Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda, Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War, and The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation.

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The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
tim_tyler More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding book about General Rashid Dostum, who is probably the least known of all of the Afghan leaders. It gives an excellent biography of General Dostum, and gives good information about the Uzbek minority tribe in Afghanistan. The book is easy to read, and is well organized. A recommended read for anyone who is interested in Afghanistan, its politics, and its culture.