In Kandahar, Power Fills a Vacuum

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On Wednesday night the bandits came, brandishing rifles and flashing knives. In Kandahar's outer suburb of Manan Medical, 15 men smashed doors at one mudbrick house after another. Shir Mohammed's weaponless neighbors were robbed with blades to their throats. At 3 a.m. the thieves were at his house, tying up his guest and demanding cash. A businessman in a city of paupers, Shir admits "my guests have money, as do I." Shir's relatives fought back. They stirred into a one-family posse; the running gun battle lasting until dawn. The morning sun chased the robbers to their safe house — police headquarters.

In this city, where government salaries are not reliable incomes, perhaps the police saw the raid as a bit of tax collection. "It's what the people have been afraid of," says a shopkeeper. It might have stopped there, were this not an excuse to settle a few things.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Kandahar is a polarized city; governor Gul Agha Sherzai has the title, but not all the power. In this new and unsettled post-Taliban Afghanistan, a soldier's loyalty often lies not with the governor, but with the commander who lent him to the government. It's not a stable system, especially now that noses are out of joint over the gubernatorial appointment. And so the robbers, branded as Sherzai's Pakistani recruits, were besieged at 7 a.m. by mujahedin, many from rival factions. Kalashnikovs began barking back and forth, soon joined by salvos of rocket propelled grenades, the explosions resonating through the waking city. There was little strategy behind the assault, and controlled fire wasn't a feature. Lurking behind corners, or popping out windows, the fighters sprayed rounds, oblivious to curious market shoppers. The exchange was won by weight of numbers; more fire poured in than came out. The crack of grenades brought a lull.

At that point there was talk of negotiation. Commander Mullah Gul Akhund, fresh from Kabul, did not like the idea: "I would rather kill them." A few shots inside the headquarters were the final word. Minutes later two men were whisked away. The crowds dispersed and the mujahedin relaxed. Throughout the day short bursts or single shots could be heard coming from the area, but fighting didn't resume.

Kabul is more controlled, but perhaps no less tense. Until last week Akhund worked there for Hamid Karzai, head of the country's interim government. He paints a similar picture of the capital; Karzai is in charge, but might is wielded by Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. Different worlds are colliding, and the groups from north must cope with Pashtuns from the south. Discussions are said to be ongoing with defense minister Mohammed Fahim, of the Northern Alliance, to forge a durable arrangement. Says Akhund, "Only a few Pashtuns remain with Karzai for his protection." It will be better when he doesn't need them.