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Hero on horseback, or mass murderer?

Why an Afghan warlord, once backed by the CIA and with a reputation for shocking brutality, is back in the news.

Presidential candidate General Abdul Rashid Dostum sits on a horse during his final campaign rally on Oct. 6, 2004, at Kabul stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The name of General Abdul Rashid Dostum evokes fear or awe, depending on where you're coming from. In Afghanistan, heroes and villains are often fungible.

The burly warlord has a reputation for the fierce defense of his fellow Uzbeks and for medieval brutality in dispatching his enemies. His repertoire of atrocities extends from the early 1990s to the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. It is alleged to include leaving war prisoners to perish in metal containers left out in the desert sun, and ripping victims in two by strapping them to tanks headed in opposite directions.

None of that prevented the United States from turning to Dostum for help in 2001, when they needed him, and others in the Northern Alliance, to dispatch the Taliban.

Karzai was also not bothered by the general's past when he enlisted his help in his increasingly whimsical campaign to retain his office. Dostum, from his exile in Turkey, where he has spent much of the past year, has publicly come out in support of Karzai. He was slated to come back right about now to give the president a boost in the polls.

Dostum remains wildly popular with Uzbeks, who make up 6 to 7 percent of the population, based largely in Afghanistan’s northern provinces that share a border with Uzbekistan. They see him as a hero of Afghanistan’s multiple wars over the past 20 years, an interesting fact since he changed sides often, was famous for double-dealing, and ran away from the Taliban when they reached his northern stronghold in the late 1990s.

In return for wiping the slate clean on some nasty criminal charges, Karzai was to receive Dostum’s unbridled support. It goes without saying that the general was expected to deliver his Uzbek constituency, giving Karzai a leg up in the north.

He may even have been reinstated as chief of staff to the commander in chief, and perhaps receive an even juicier post in a new Karzai cabinet.

But a month out from the election, reports have resurfaced exposing the general’s unsavory past and accusing him of ordering the murder of as many as 3,400 Taliban prisoners of war in 2001, potentially casting a shadow over the prospect of a triumphal return. And the publication of satellite maps showing a purported mass grave in Afghanistan have brought renewed focus to investigations surrounding the general and his alleged atrocities.

The charges against Dostum have been mounting for some time. Several groups, including Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, have documented the case extensively.