KABUL • An ominous week-long stand-off between the government and its rogue first vice-president is choking traffic and dominating talk in the edgy Afghan capital. Police units have been stationed at strategic points near his fortified compound, and everyone is asking the same question: Are they going to arrest Abdul Rashid Dostum?
Six weeks ago, Mr Dostum, 62, a powerful ethnic Uzbek boss and former warlord with a history of alleged war crimes and personal abuses, was publicly accused of brutality and rape by former governor and political rival Ahmad Eschi, who charged that Mr Dostum had held him captive in a rural stronghold and ordered him sodomised.
The allegation thrust President Ashraf Ghani's government into a tense predicament. Western governments and human rights groups urged him to take legal action, calling the case a major test of civilian rule. Some influential Afghans advised caution, warning that Mr Dostum and his armed followers could react violently and urging Mr Ghani to settle the matter through talks.
The President declared he would follow the law, and his attorney-general vowed to undertake a thorough, impartial investigation. Repeated letters were sent to Mr Dostum requesting that he and his guards appear for questioning but went unanswered.
On Monday, arrest warrants were issued for nine of his employees but were also ignored. His spokesmen insist he cannot be held accountable.
Yet no move has been made to detain Mr Dostum or his men.
"President Ghani does not have the power to act. You need a strong and serious police commander to go after him," said retired general Atiqullah Amarkhail.
"In Afghanistan, there are many centres of power."
Government officials said they are in no rush to go after Mr Dostum and are focused on following proper legal procedures to avoid any suggestion of a political motive. "We want to be extremely careful because this is such a sensitive case. It is going to take time," one official said.
Meanwhile, the government's uncertain relationships with other former warlords further complicate the tense picture, raising alarm.
Even as the government attempts to bring Mr Dostum to justice, it has invited fugitive militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to return to Kabul in a peace deal, hoping to persuade Taleban insurgents to follow suit. The one-time Cold War US ally turned his forces against the Afghan government a decade ago and was put on a United Nations terrorist list.
The other strongman in this mix is wealthy northern governor and Mr Dostum's longtime rival Attah Mohammed Noor, who has been negotiating with Mr Ghani to get more status. Mr Noor is seen as a possible replacement for Mr Dostum or Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, with whom the President has had a rocky relationship.