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AP PHOTO/DAVID GUTTENFELDER

During a presidential run in 2004, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the subject of a book by Brian WIlliams PhD’99, climbed on top of a horse and
waved at throngs of supporters at a campaign rally in a Kabul stadium in Afghanistan.

The Warlord’s
Biographer
Brian Glyn Williams travels to the world’s most
dangerous regions to learn more about our
surprising allies in the War on Terror.

By Sandra Knisely ’09, MA’13

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L
ike many Americans, Brian Glyn stepped into what he recalls as an few university programs in the country
Williams PhD’99 spent last “apocalyptic ghost zone.” dedicated to Central Asian studies.
summer and fall closely tracking a Williams watched with horror as It was also the only place where
contentious, historic election that human remains were removed from the Williams knew he could focus on
would shape a nation’s future. But unlike wreckage of the skyscrapers. He was Afghanistan. His adviser, Kemal Karpat, a
most Americans, the race he watched shaken by the idea that Americans had renowned Turkish specialist and emeritus
wasn’t one of the U.S. midterms. become victims of a terror group closely professor now based in Istanbul, encour-
Williams’s attention was focused on allied with the Taliban, and he knew at aged his interests. “I had a tremendous
Afghanistan’s presidential election, where, that moment that his life was about to education there,” says Williams of his
after two votes and several months of change. As the country tried to make time at the UW. “The chance to study
audits, Ashraf Ghani secured the country’s sense of what had just happened, he was an obscure part of the world was a career
first democratic transfer of power. But it tapped as an expert source for national builder for me. It made me who I am.”
wasn’t Ghani whom Williams cared most
about — it was Ghani’s vice president,
Abdul Rashid Dostum. When the final
Williams heard about an Uzbek warlord named
results were announced, Williams sent Dostum, who had snuck back into Afghanistan
Dostum his personal congratulations. after years in exile to help lead a new, tenuous
Dostum isn’t just any rising politician
in just any developing country. Born in a coalition against the Taliban.
rural village, he climbed first to regional
and then to national prominence in the media interviews, and he gave several Williams realized early in his doctoral
place where the United States has fought public talks to packed halls at UMass. “I program that he wasn’t cut out for a
its longest war. His story is a rags-to- was someone who could infuse knowl- career in “a dusty archive.” Instead, he
guns-to-riches tale complete with ethnic edge at a time of urgency,” he says. was drawn to the idea of studying history
battles, geopolitical intrigue, covert oper- The class roster for his course on as it unfolded to explain — and perhaps
ations, and even a mythical death ray. central Asian history swelled well past to help shape — current events. In 1997,
It’s also the story of Williams’s career. one hundred. he moved to a region of Uzbekistan just
Williams had, essentially, spent a life- north of the Afghanistan border for his
time studying the places and cultures he dissertation fieldwork. While there, he
Apocalyptic ghost zone
was now asked to explain. During a child- witnessed the rise of an unknown group
Williams’s first day in front of a classroom hood split between Wales and Florida, of zealots called The Students, or, in
at the University of Massachusetts- he developed an interest in stories about Pashto, the Taliban, which was rapidly
Dartmouth went about as he expected. the horse-mounted Afghan warriors who attracting new members and allies,
The brand-new professor of Islamic faced off against the invading Soviets including a faction of the al-Qaeda army.
history surveyed the handful of students during the Cold War. At the time, Williams headed to the border to get
who had signed up for his course on Williams romanticized the Afghan muja- closer to the action and began hearing
central Asian history from the time of hideen forces. “The rebels in the ‘land stories about an ethnically Uzbek (Turkic-
Genghis Khan to the present. that time forgot’ were standing up to Mongol) warlord named Dostum, who
“Have you ever heard of a Muslim these Communists to protect their faith, had snuck back into Afghanistan after
theocracy called the Taliban?” he asked. their land, and [their] families,” he says. years in exile to help lead a new, tenuous
Only one student raised a hand. The date That interest motivated Williams coalition against the Taliban. Though
was September 5, 2001. to study Russian as an undergraduate at Williams eventually turned his attention
When the World Trade Center Stetson University in Florida and then to back to his dissertation, he developed a
towers fell less than a week later, pursue master’s degrees in Russian history deep fascination with Dostum. “It was my
Williams was invited to visit Ground and Central Asian studies at Indiana dream to meet him,” Williams says, but
Zero by a friend who worked nearby. University, where the CIA regularly at the time, travel into Afghanistan was
“He called me up and said, ‘[Al-Qaeda recruited for operatives on the eve of the impossible.
has] made the news. Come see their Gulf War. Williams opted for academia Instead, Williams traveled north
handiwork,’ ” Williams says. He rushed and pursuit of a doctorate instead and to the University of London, where he
to Manhattan, put on a mask, and headed to Wisconsin, home to one of began teaching in 1999. While there, he

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was invited by Scotland Yard to become Some two thousand Beche — the U.S. battle that led to the
an adviser on the conflict in Chechnya overthrow of the Taliban and was won,
and to provide early insights about the Uzbek horsemen in large part, by horse-mounted Uzbek
Taliban. Then came a whirlwind of charged into nine cavalry wearing turbans and robes.
projects, including fieldwork in Kosovo In October 2001, teams from the CIA
during the aftermath of that country’s
thousand Taliban fighters and U.S. Special Forces coordinated with
ethnic war and a trip to Macedonia to and heavy tank fire. Dostum’s guerrilla army to launch an
meet with rebel insurgents — a move attack against the Taliban, who refused to
that promptly got Williams arrested by an interview with Dostum. Flying from hand over their Al-Qaeda guest, Osama
the Macedonian Army. Thanks to his Boston to Kabul can take more than bin Laden. Though U.S. military officers
dual British and American citizenship, a day, sometimes two, but getting to anticipated the guerrillas would need
he was released after only a few hours, the capital city was the easiest part of until spring to prepare an attack, Dostum
but Williams says the experience was a Williams’s odyssey. “Afghanistan is the was ready to move almost immediately.
turning point. only country where you can experience On November 5, some two thousand
“That night, as we sat in the pub, it the Middle Ages,” he says. Sheep roamed Uzbek horsemen charged into nine thou-
sort of empowered me,” he says. “You can the city’s streets. sand Taliban fighters and heavy tank fire.
do field research in potentially dangerous Western reporters have described As they did so, the Green Berets called in
situations and get away with it.” Dostum as an “an ogre” and “a monster coordinates for U.S. planes to drop laser-
who burns people alive.” These depic- guided bombs from above.
tions made him wary of talking with During the Bai Beche attack, Dostum
Why should I trust you? foreigners and especially of talking to spread a rumor that he was in possession
In 2003, Williams managed to secure a Americans, who he believed had turned of a death ray. Each time a plane dropped
grant to travel to Afghanistan to attempt their backs on him in the aftermath of Bai a bomb, Dostum was informed by radio.
COURTESY OF ABDUL DOSTUM

Brian Williams, above right, visits with General Dostum at his headquarters in the northern plains of Afghanistan.

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COURTESY OF ABDUL DOSTUM

Dostum (crouching and wearing American
camouflage, above) announces to his men
that the United States will be sending
an elite team to join them in their battle
against their common foe, the Taliban. The
map at left shows the route Williams took to
visit Dostum.

publicly from the warlord. Dostum felt he
had been used.
Despite Dostum’s aversion to Amer-
ican visitors, Williams was determined
to meet him, and the two had mutual
friends. Turkey had granted asylum
to Dostum after the Taliban briefly
conquered Dostum’s northern territory in
1997, so when the Turkish embassy sent
word that it could vouch for Williams,
the warlord agreed to receive him. In
2003, a convoy of more than one hundred
bodyguards — all wielding AK-47s —
was arranged to transport Williams from
Kabul to Dostum’s compound in the
northern desert.
He would point at the target just before Williams has tracked down multiple They drove north through the Hindu
it exploded and broadcast to the Taliban military reports that acknowledge Kush Mountains to a location near Mazar-
that he was allied with Azrail, the Angel of Dostum’s role in the success of the Bai e-Sharif, a shrine well known for its
Death. The Taliban soldiers surrendered Beche offensive. However, after Dostum’s beautiful, blue-domed mosque, which local
in droves. “That scene inspired me to troops left hundreds, and possibly thou- residents believe contains special powers of
write a book,” Williams says. “The cavalry sands, of Taliban prisoners to die in metal protection. A crowd of elders was waiting
attack broke the spine of the Taliban army truck containers that December, U.S. to greet Williams when he arrived in the
in the north.” government officials distanced themselves middle of the night, and he was directed to

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COURTESY OF BRIAN WILLIAMS

Williams and his wife, Feyza, meet with Dostum at his compound in Sheberghan during Williams’s second visit to northern Afghanistan in
2005. On his first visit two years earlier, Williams had been accompanied by a convoy of more than 100 bodyguards — all wielding AK-47s
— who transported him from Kabul to the general’s compound in the northern desert.

Dostum, who sat watching Williams from involvement in jihad. Some were fanatics; CIA intelligence agents who lost track of
a throne-like armchair. some were farmers who had joined the him during the 1990s.
Williams stood through “some of Taliban for the promise of $700. “One When the Soviet Union collapsed and
the longest seconds of my life,” he says, guy lost his two brothers, and he wanted Russia withdrew funding for its allies in
before Dostum spoke: “I’m sure you have me to call his baba [father] and tell him,” Afghanistan, Dostum aligned himself with
many questions for me, because you’ve Williams says. “Another guy was a mullah, former mujahideen leaders from various
come all the way from America. But I and he told me he’d kill me if he wasn’t in ethnic groups and overthrew Mohammad
have a question for you, my friend. Why this prison. He spat at me.” Najibullah, the Communist president who
should I trust you?” Williams realized that most of the had begun disarming his former friends
Williams replied in Turkish: “Well, prisoners he spoke with had no idea their — a move the mujahideen interpreted as a
Pasha [general],” he said, “I’m here to tell al-Qaeda allies had attacked the United sign of impending subjugation. Dostum’s
your story. Let me live with you as the States. “A lot of them were skeptical. new alliance broke down quickly after
first outsider to write the Dostum epic.” There was this real sense that America the presidential coup, however, when he
Flattery and the promise to set his was the bad guy, that we had invaded was snubbed for a position in the new
reputational record straight appealed and didn’t belong there,” he says. “They government. A few years later, Dostum
to Dostum. He invited Williams to sit thought we were like the Russians.” tried partnering with a particularly brutal
down, eat a Turkish biscuit, turn on his warlord, an attempt that resulted in a failed
camcorder, and start asking questions. For coup and a series of sieges that killed more
the next couple of months, Williams lived Black, white, gray than twenty-five thousand people in Kabul
at the compound and spent hours with At first glance, Dostum may seem an during the mid-1990s.
Dostum, his family, his men, and even his unlikely ally for the U.S. military. After At the same time, the Taliban’s
prisoners. all, the Afghan Communist Army spent ideology was spreading across Afghani-
At the time of Williams’s visit, Dostum the 1970s and ’80s battling against muja- stan. Eventually, warring ethnic leaders in
was holding an estimated five thousand hideen fundamentalist groups supported the north realized they faced a common
captured Taliban soldiers in a medieval by the CIA. enemy: the Taliban. The extremist
fortress. Williams was guided through At the beginning of his career, Dostum group had severely restricted the rights
giant metal doors into the prison’s central viewed the Communists he fought for as of women in its territories and imposed
corridor, where thousands of men looked advocates for equality and proponents of a harsh religious requirements on men,
down from their cells at the blond, blue- secular society free from Islamic law. For too. When the Taliban publicly tortured
eyed American. He interviewed several years, he’s identified himself as a moderate and killed Najibullah, it became clear to
prisoners, who held a range of opinions secularist rather than as a Communist, but Afghanistan’s most powerful figures that
about Americans and about their own Williams says that nuance was lost on the something had to be done.

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From his base in Mazar-e-Sharif, in possession of both arms, and thought Williams, came along — over Williams’s
Dostum ruled a northern territory that of the Americans as his saving grace. objections. “I said, ‘It’s too dangerous,’
was one of the few remaining sanctuaries Williams’s work provides the first and she said, ‘Well, if it’s too dangerous,
where women could attend a university significant alternative to popular Western then why are you going?’ I backtracked
and move freely in public without male depictions of Dostum as a tribal killer and said, ‘No, it’s not so dangerous,’ and
escorts or burqas. But one of Dostum’s who couldn’t possibly have contrib- that was it,” he says.
Uzbek countrymen betrayed him and uted meaningfully to the strategic plan She and Dostum were fast friends.
accepted a $200,000 bribe to turn his behind Bai Beche. “Americans see the Over the next few years, the “Dostum
personal army on Dostum’s forces. The world in black and white. But the world epic” was interrupted by various proj-
ects. In 2007, the U.S. government
Dostum ruled a northern territory that was one asked Williams to conduct a study that
tracked Taliban suicide bombings across
of the few remaining sanctuaries where southeastern Afghanistan. A year later, he
women could attend a university and move freely served as an expert witness at the Guan-
in public without male escorts or burqas. tanamo Bay trial of Osama bin Laden’s
personal driver. Eventually, after tracking
Taliban then overran Mazar-e-Sharif, and is very gray. It’s complex,” Williams down CIA agents and a few of the Green
Dostum fled into exile in 1997. says, explaining that his main goal was Berets to corroborate Dostum’s account
Right after 9/11, the CIA knew little to present a fuller picture of Dostum’s of Bai Beche, Williams kept his word and
about Dostum’s complex web of alli- involvement in the War on Terror. “This finished the book.
ances and the motivations behind them. book took me a decade. Journalists don’t Initially, publishers rejected it out of
According to Williams’s research, the have that kind of extended deadline. I can a perception that Americans were tired of
dossier on Dostum that the U.S. Army probe much, much deeper as a profes- the War on Terror. But that perception
used during preparations for Bai Beche sional scholar and educate journalists, changed when bin Laden was killed in
was riddled with errors. It described him teach them what they missed in their rush 2011, and The Last Warlord: The Life and
as a frail man in his eighties who was for the headlines.” Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who
missing an arm and harbored a hatred After the 2003 visit, Williams Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban
for Americans. None of this was true; in returned to Dostum’s compound twice Regime came out in 2013. “More than
2001, Dostum was forty-seven years old, more. The second time, his wife, Feyza one hundred Uzbeks living in America
came to Manhattan for the book signing,”
Williams says. “They were thrilled.”
COURTESY OF ABDUL DOSTUM

Beyond telling the full story behind
Dostum’s involvement in the overthrow
of the Taliban, Williams hopes that The
Last Warlord might serve as something
more: a model for conducting historical
research that has political applications in
the present.
“As scholars, we owe it to ourselves
to be in the field. We should be traveling
to these areas, even if it’s dangerous, and
bring back these stories,” he says. “With
the War on Terror, there are so many
myths, so many misunderstandings. We
can make blunders on a massive scale,
so it’s important to make decisions based
on history.” n
Sandra Knisely ’09, MA’13 is the news content
In a scene that could have taken place hundreds of years ago, Dostum’s horsemen gather strategist for University Communications. Her
in the mountains for a war council in 2001. passport stamps do not include Afghanistan.

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