Can The Afghans Come Together?

Unity looks far away as rival pretenders to power seize fiefdoms all across the country

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In Afghanistan the hardest thing is to know whom you can trust. On Wednesday, Taliban fleeing their frontier stronghold of Jalalabad handed over the city to a fellow Pashtun, former governor Younis Khalis. Once ensconced, he warned the nearby Northern Alliance, dominated by non-Pashtuns, to keep out. But no sooner had the shooting stopped when three Pashtun rivals rushed in from Peshawar leading armed units hastily assembled from Afghan refugee camps to proclaim themselves the new warlords of the eastern provinces. "It's just like the bad ol' days," sighed a U.N. official. In a country in which loyalty rarely runs further than the next town and power is always personal, the flight of the Taliban left a golden chance for every old warlord to roar back.

The U.S.-led coalition, the U.N. and Afghanistan's next-door neighbors all scrambled to hold things together, but diplomacy needs a kick start. Despite weeks of prodding Afghan factional leaders to form a single broad-based authority to take over from the Taliban, nothing was ready last week to fill the sudden void. Now a bewildering number of pretenders to power are creating new "facts on the ground," foreclosing the possibility of an orderly post-Taliban succession.

Though local leaders wield considerable power, in Afghan tradition whoever rules Kabul rules the country--nominally, anyway. So when Northern Alliance forces settled triumphantly into the capital's vacated ministries and military barracks, despite a promise not to occupy the nation's symbolic center, it set off a free-for-all by leaders seeking their own patch. The notorious Uzbek general, Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose record of atrocities and betrayals alienated every other faction, had already set up shop in Mazar-i-Sharif. In Herat old allies begged former chieftain Ismail Khan, a Tajik with ties to Iran, to "come on in" before someone else took the city, and he did.

Down south, local and exiled Pashtun commanders vied to snap up pieces of their tribal heartland. Hamid Karzai, who is based in Peshawar and who had evaded Taliban capture for six weeks while he clandestinely stirred up rebellion with cia help, headed toward Kandahar from the north. Ghul Agha Sherzai, a former Kandahar governor kicked out by the Taliban, moved on the city from the south. Both are keen to persuade Taliban commanders it is better to surrender to fellow Pashtuns than vengeful northern hordes.

Pashtun exiles and foreign diplomats nudged the former King to step in as a figurehead, but from his comfortable villa in Rome, Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, decided that "the situation was not conducive" yet to going home. He accused the Northern Alliance of bad faith in taking over the capital. Alliance political chief Burhanuddin Rabbani--the country's pre-Taliban President, still officially recognized by the U.N.--reclaimed his old job in Kabul, evidently in no hurry to share power. The King, he announced, is welcome back only as a private citizen.

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