A post-Taliban scramble for power

Afghanistan's anti-Taliban fighters divide the spoils and position themselves for a postwar government.

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN - Aghanistan is now entering the bumpy - and risky - transition phase between war and peace.

Here in this eastern Afghan city, looting and fighting continues while anti-Taliban factions jockey for political power.

On a national level, the same postwar positioning is starting. Deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani returned to Kabul for the first time in five years on Saturday. Perhaps assuming that possession is 9/10ths of the law, he took up residence in Palace No. 1. He met yesterday with UN envoy Francesc Vendrell, who is pushing hard this week to create a broad-based interim regime. But there is already bickering over just where to broker a deal.

On the battlefront, US warplanes continued to pound an estimated 3,000 Taliban, Pakistani, and Arab fighters who control the northern city of Kunduz. At press time yesterday, an opposition commander said the Taliban had offered to surrender Kunduz provided there was a guarantee of safety for bin Laden's foreign fighters.

Iran delayed a 15-truck aid convoy yesterday after a gunfight broke out between two anti-Taliban factions in Herat.

In the southern city of Kandahar, there was no sign that the Taliban were ready to withdraw from the power base they captured seven years ago, despite reports on Friday that they negotiated a withdrawal that would leave the city in the hands of fellow ethnic Pashtuns.

Here in Jalalabad, the eastern Afghan city that was abandoned by the Taliban last Monday, the transition of power is rocky. Looting and lawlessness are still apparent, and residents are wary.

"The people who are in power now will repeat the same mistakes," says Shamsul Haq, a drug-control officer who served both for the Taliban and the previous mujahideen governments. "In the last three or four days you are witnesses of what they are doing. They are looting in the offices and they have returned to the same positions. I don't think it will be a healthy administration."

It's a situation that mirrors the fractious condition of Afghanistan itself, but instability and lawlessness among the Pashtuns - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group - could have effects far beyond the mud-hut oasis and rich farmlands around Jalalabad. The reason has as much to do with history as with Afghanistan's complex ethnic makeup.

Pashtuns have always dominated Afghan politics and they have the greatest potential to undo any peace plan or any chance for a truly stable Afghan government. If Pashtun warlords here cannot restore peace in their homeland, they may be shut out of power in the central government of Kabul, which is currently composed of ethnic minorities. And if history is the gauge, any government that excludes Pashtuns is a fragile one.

The man who arrived in Jalalabad first on Monday claims the traditional right to divide the spoils. That man was Hazrat Ali. A warlord of the Nooristani minority who arrived just two hours after Taliban governor Haji Kabir left Jalalabad. Mr Ali's speed assured him not just control over most of Jalalabad but a position in the next government as minister for law and order.

The process of carving up the spoils is still taking place in the massive domed governor's mansion in Jalalabad. Behind closed doors the top mujahideen leaders - including newly selected governor Abdul Habir, security minister Haji Zaman Ghamsharik and law-and-order minister Hazrat Ali - are deciding which faction could receive the remaining posts.

Outside these doors, the hallways look like Washington, D.C., with lobbyists offering advice that serves the people - and themselves. The difference of course is the presence of dozens of young fighters carrying assault rifles.

But amid the peace talks, many Pashtuns here grouse that ethnic minorities like Mr. Ali, and the just-returned Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, cannot be trusted. After all, they say, Ali - the man charged with maintaining law and order - has dozens of soldiers under his command riding around in pickup trucks apparently stolen from UN relief agencies in Jalalabad.

One of Ali's commanders, Muhammad Khaksar, has assured the UN that any of his men caught stealing will be punished according to Islamic law: Their hands will be chopped off. Outside the governor's mansion, hundreds of supporters wait to find out what their leaders have been able to gain for each respective group.

And residents and warlords in this city warn that a crucial - and emblematic - showdown is developing.

Ali and Mr. Ghamsharik - two pro-Western regional commanders - are bickering over who has both the right and the might to attack several hundred, possibly 1,000 of the best Arab fighters in the Al Qaeda network, who have vowed to make a last stand from their "Tora Bora" mountain redoubt south of the city.

Yesterday, Gham- sharik, the newly-appointed security minister, sent a reconnaissance mission to the Al Qaeda training base at Tora Bora, in the eastern "White Mountain" range that divides Afghanistan from Pakistan. Tora Bora has the most extensive cave and tunnel networks in the country.

"The Arabs told us, 'We will fight until we are martyred,' " says Ghamsharik, who returned to Afghanistan only last week after two years living in Dijon, France.

Ghamsharik says he has been in contact with the US military about the situation inside the Tora Bora military base, "We fully intend to coordinate the attack with our allies," he says, adding that he also expects that US or British ground troops will participate in the attack.

Any attack on the cave complex presents logistical problems and is likely to be met with intense return fire. A fighter from the Pashi tribe, which controls much of Jalalabad now, says he approached the base a day earlier and was met with heavy machine gun fire.

"There are a few shops at the base of the mountain, but if you go near there, the fighters just open up on you," he says. "The fighters are up there with their wives and children, and I don't think they have any plans to leave."

But Ali, the interior minister, has, for now, far better weaponry than Ghamsharik. His fighters picked up dozens of tanks and heavy artillery pieces left behind by fleeing Taliban forces. "This operation does not fall under Ghamsharik's responsibility. He can't make this attack because he doesn't have the tanks or the guns to perform it. All the guns are with me. This is my domain." Ali claims that he was drawing up separate plans for an attack on the base. "I'm 80 percent sure that Mr. bin Laden or one or two of his top associates are up there."

The sudden collapse of the Taliban regime in eastern Afghanistan along with reemerging rivalries have already given hundreds of Arab fighters a chance to slip out of the country and into Pakistan.

Pakistan's lawless North West Frontier Province, which provided strong backing for the Taliban regime, still offers an excellent escape route for the Arabs should they decide to cut and run, said police and military sources here.

Key players in the future of Afghanistan's government
Hamid Karzai

Who: Leader of southern Afghanistan's Popalzai tribe and Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister from 1992-94. He was a close associate of the former King Zahir Shah. He speaks fluent English and describes himself as a moderate Muslim.

What he believes: The former sympathizer of the Taliban changed allegiances after his father was assassinated, presumably by the Taliban. Mr. Karzai's mission has been to persuade tribal chieftains to back the establishment of a broad-based government that would include all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups presided over by former King Zahir Shah.

Burhanuddin Rabbani

Who: The ethnic Tajik is still recognized by several countries as the nominal president of Afghanistan. He returned to Kabul this weekend and declared himself the head of state. He is a former lecturer in Islamic law at Kabul University.

What he believes: After being named president in 1993, his reign was marred by fighting with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and he was flushed from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Although Mr. Rabbani still holds Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations, he has little hold on the hearts of Afghans – including members of the Northern Alliance – who accuse him of atrocities while in power. Much of his rule was marred by infighting between groups that now form the Northern Alliance.

Gen. Muhammad Quassim Fahim

Who: The defense minister for the Islamic State of Afghanistan took over for assassinated leader Gen. Ahmed Shah Massoud. Some consider Gen. Fahim to be the de facto ruler of Kabul.

What he believes: Led by Fahim, the alliance has formed a supreme military and security council to oversee the gathering of an interim body to determine a future Afghan government. Fahim has three months to arrange a national unity council, which is supposed to include representatives from the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance as well as supporters of the former king.

King Mohammad Zahir Shah

Who: The ethnic Pashtun was the King of Afghanistan from 1933-73. Shah, who has lived in exile in Rome for the past 28 years, supports Mr. Rabbani until a new government is chosen.

What he believes: Shah plans to return to Kabul to convene a "grand council" of traditional Afghan leaders to choose a new government. The UN sees him as a figurehead that can unify various Afghan factions and ethnic groups into a transitional replacement for the Taliban. Some anti-Taliban forces want Shah, rather than Rabbani, to head a new regime. Shah favors a broad-based government, and has said he wants to play a role in it.

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