Can The Afghans Come Together?

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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.

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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.

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.