KABUL — After more than a year in exile, General Abdul Rashid Dostum returned to his native Afghanistan on Sunday facing criminal charges of rape and kidnapping, as well as accusations of brutality, human rights abuses, and killing his first wife.
Dostum also remains the country’s first vice president.
Waiting to greet him Sunday at Kabul’s international airport was a government delegation and, apparently, a suicide bomber.
An array of top officials met his plane and, despite the criminal charges against him, they gave him safe passage — not to jail, but to his office and home, in a deal that Afghan officials have said was negotiated by President Ashraf Ghani in the wake of widespread protests and unrest among his fellow Uzbeks.
Moments after he left the airport, however, the bomber detonated explosives at the traffic circle at the exit, killing 20 people, including nine members of a security detail assigned to Dostum, and wounding 90 others, according to police and health officials.
“Just as we passed the roundabout, we heard a boom. I said, ‘Oh God,’ ” Dostum told a crowd of thousands of supporters gathered outside his office in downtown Kabul to cheer his return. “I pray that all the wounded survive.”
His supporters dismissed the many charges against him. “He is a leader who has millions of supporters,” Mullah Mohammad Qasim said. “All of those allegations against him are baseless lies.”
The government insisted that the criminal charges remained active, even though they date from November 2016 and have resulted in no arrests. Dostum and nine of his bodyguards are accused of abducting a political opponent, Ahmad Ishchi, and of beating and raping him repeatedly.
“His case will be there — that is a personal issue; I don’t know what will happen,” said Shah Hussain Murtazawi, the deputy spokesman for Ghani.
Dostum’s return from exile is the latest episode in the tumultuous career of the Uzbek leader, an illiterate former communist enforcer turned warlord who at one time or another was allied with every side in Afghanistan’s long war — including the Taliban — and turned on most of them.
He is accused of war crimes, including allowing his men to suffocate thousands of Taliban prisoners in locked truck containers.
Long a protégé of the Central Intelligence Agency, which mentored and armed him, Dostum has proved a powerful political player in Afghan elections in recent years, able to deliver his small but united Uzbek minority as a 4-million-strong bloc, giving him outsize influence.
Ghani took him on as his running mate in 2014, despite previously calling him a “known killer.”
The new political respectability of First Vice President Dostum — the country has three vice presidents — did little to curb his behavior, however.
After the election, he would still at times be seen leading his private militia into battle, riding in his personal Humvee with two dwarf bodyguards on the hood, and engaging in drinking bouts in a country where alcohol is outlawed. And he is widely accused of continuing to use rape to subjugate his enemies, and occasionally his allies.
His exile to Turkey was negotiated with the help of diplomats to avoid the unrest that would most likely have erupted if he were to face trial on rape charges.
But unrest in northern Afghanistan, where Dostum has many supporters and allies, is happening anyway: Many Uzbeks have been angered by the government’s arrest of a powerful northern warlord and Dostum ally, Nizamuddin Qaisari, and his bodyguards.
Video of government forces violently abusing his bodyguards became public, fueling protests and more outrage.
The deal allowing him to return is seen as a bid by Ghani’s government to seek his cooperation in parliamentary elections this year, as well as in next year’s presidential race. Many other northern political factions are aligning against Ghani’s largely Pashtun ethnic base, and Dostum could broaden that support to Uzbeks.
Government officials insist that Qaisari will remain in custody, but Dostum’s return is expected to calm his supporters.
Several people have come forward to give accounts of Dostum’s violence and sexual abuse, and diplomats and US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks have detailed even more.