He began as a union boss in the 1970s until he formed an Uzbek militia. He supported the Gorbachev-era Communist reforms in Afghanistan. He defended the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against the United States-backed mujahedin in the 1980s.
He encourages women to live and work freely, as well as music, sports, alcohol, and allows for people of other religions. These things are all discouraged by the Taliban and discouraged, to some extent by the other more moderate mujahedin. Others accuse his troops of attacking Kabul and contributing to the civil war that ensued in the wake of the fall of the Communist regime in 1992. It is also claimed that during the civil war he financed his army by opium trading.
In 2001, he returned from exile on the heels of a U.S.-led bombing campaign that drove the Taliban from power. Since then, he has run parts of the country's north as his own fiefdom, nominally serving as a deputy defense minister in the national government in Kabul but operating almost totally independent of the government.
In November of 2002, the United Nations began an investigation of alleged human rights abuses by Dostum. Witnesses claimed that Dostum jailed and tortured witnesses to prevent them from testifying in a war crimes case. Dostum is also under suspicion for the events of the Dasht-i-Leili massacre.