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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.

The facts are fairly straightforward. In Kunduz, right after the fall of the Taliban regime, up to 8,000 war prisoners were handed over to Dostum, to be transported to his base in his home province of Jowzjan. An agreement had been brokered between the Uzbek general and the Taliban: Afghan fighters were to be allowed to go home to their provinces, while foreign Taliban, including Pakistanis, Saudis and Chechens, were to be handed over to the United Nations.

Out of the 8,000, only 4,600 ever made it as far as Shiberghan, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The rest disappeared, with the assumption being that most were killed along the way.

Survivors tell horrific tales of hundreds of Taliban being stuffed into metal containers, then left in the desert, under the baking sun, until they suffocated. Some say that guards shot the containers full of holes when the prisoners begged for air. One young Taliban who fought in Kunduz told of containers full of prisoners being sunk in the Amu River.

All of these atrocities are alleged to have been committed on the orders of Dostum.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies were dumped in the Dasht-e-Leili, a desert in Jowzjan. Those remains have begun to disappear, as the pressure mounts to bring Dostum to justice.

Now, years after the fact, the charges have surfaced again, in connection with calls for the Obama administration to investigate claims that his predecessor blocked an inquiry into Dostum’s crimes.

The timing is not coincidental: Karzai’s attempt to bring Dostum back into power almost certainly precipitated the renewed coverage, say people close to the case.

“At the end of the day, it does not serve the Afghan people well to be governed by individuals who have allegations of mass atrocities against them,” said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, which has been at the forefront of the drive to open up the investigation into what happened at Dasht-e-Leili.

Dostum has few supporters in Kabul these days. The last shreds of patience snapped in February 2008, when the general viciously assaulted a former ally, Mohammad Akbar Bai, and then publicly defied the police when they came to arrest him.

Most Afghans remember the television coverage of an obviously inebriated Dostum on the roof of his garish pink palace in Kabul, shaking his fist, and what looked suspiciously like a pistol, at the police below.