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 the streets of Kabul, jubilation is giving way to anxiety as residents take a long, nervous look at their liberators. The populace has not forgotten the terrible years of Northern Alliance misrule from 1992 to 1996, when these same factions viciously turned their guns on one another, shelling the city to rubble and butchering residents as they fought for exclusive power. Or how the bloody chaos paved the way for the strict law-and-order reign of the Taliban. Kabul's exhausted people fear that it is only a matter of time before the victors start battling over the spoils again.

At the center of the post-Taliban upheaval is the fundamental divide between Afghanistan's main ethnic communities: the Uzbeks and Tajiks who predominate in the north and the Pashtun in the south and east. The past 22 years of ceaseless war have only intensified tribal animosity. Now the Pashtun majority suspects that the swaggering Northern Alliance aims to convert its military victories into political dominance.

Nor is the problem just Afghanistan's warlords; it's also the neighbors. Half a dozen surrounding states jockey for influence. Russia and Iran see strategic advantages in supporting the Northern Alliance. Pakistan, which despises the Alliance for its past misrule, dreads the possibility of the group's controlling a new Afghan government. Islamabad is in a state of shock over the rapidity with which its longtime enemies gobbled up two-thirds of Taliban-held territory and blames the U.S. for not holding them back. "What is left for the others, anyway? Crumbs?" complains a Pakistani official.

As the situation remained dangerously fluid, the allies rushed in foreign troops to bring some semblance of security to liberated zones. Busy with combat operations and sensitive to the perception it aspires to be an occupier, the U.S. delegated peacekeeping to others. British special forces landed Friday to take control of Bagram airfield north of Kabul and deploy around the capital. French troops were en route to secure another key air base at Mazar. But both powers hope to turn over long-term security as quickly as possible to a multinational Muslim force led by Turkey. Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is pressing all factions to convene as early as this week to draw up a peaceful power-sharing arrangement. The U.S. doesn't want to play its hand too obviously, but heavy external guidance will be needed if Afghanistan's warlords are to stop acting like killers and start thinking like statesmen.

How well the U.S. coalition succeeds in uniting Afghans could ultimately hinge on such simple things as how quickly food and medicine reach the millions in need. "Getting aid in is the way to stabilize the situation," says a British defense official. The most persuasive tool the allies have is to show Afghans that a better life lies ahead if their leaders cooperate with the international community and compromise in their politics.

--With reporting by Hannah Bloch and Tim McGirk/Islamabad, Massimo Calabresi/Washington and J.F.O. McAllister/London

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