MOHAMED AGHA, AFGHANISTAN — Sitting on the parched desert floor in the Wakhjan Valley beside a graveyard of wrecked vehicles, an imperfect circle of turbaned Afghan men argue about their future.
Animated and noisy, this gathering of village elders and militia commanders is trying to decide on a new local leader, using a time-honored system of decisionmaking in Afghanistan.
In fact, this dust-blown open-air council meeting is a microcosm of the talks between rival Afghan factions, minus the Taliban, that began in a luxury retreat in Germany yesterday. United Nations and Western diplomats implored the parties to agree on a political road map for Afghanistan's future, in a bid to guarantee regional stability and billions in relief aid.
Opening the conference, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told delegates that there were "clear expectations" for peace. "I urge you all to forge a truly historic compromise that holds out a better future for your torn country and its people," Mr. Fischer said. "The international community is prepared to make this great effort."
UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said that in their first session, the four delegations - representing the Northern Alliance that now controls much of Afghanistan, deposed King Mohammad Zahir Shah, and two other Afghan exile groups - agreed to try to reach consensus within three to five days on an interim administration, with the goal of eventual elections. "Democracy is indeed a very important component for the future of Afghanistan," he said.
But here in Mohamed Agha, it is the local jirga, or assembly, that is coping with the nation's profound new reality, as Afghanistan struggles to emerge from more than two decades of war. What's important, those gathered say, is that they themselves will make the choice.
While the target of the American military campaign in Afghanistan is accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, the result at ground level is political soul-searching and optimism at the chance for a fresh start.
"These difficulties we are facing now are due only to ourselves," booms Ajapkhan Massoud, a former military commander during the 1980s and 90s, to the gathering of ethnic Pashtun elders. The Pashtun-dominated Taliban are gone, replaced by the minority groups of the Northern Alliance.
"We have to forget about who is Pashtun, Tajik, and Uzbek. None are better than the others," says the large, black-turbaned commander Massoud, raising his right hand.
This meeting was convened to appoint a new governor, but quickly turned into a wider political forum. There were complaints that a similar jirga more than a week ago failed to yield results. The final decision yesterday was to choose 14 delegates from local tribes, and meet again today. Regardless of the result, the new political dynamic seems to have blurred past divisions.
"Who was mujahideen [a resistance fighter], and who was Taliban?" asks another commander, Izatollah Kouchai, addressing the craggy-faced men with the poise of an ancient Greek orator. "None were foreign - they were our brothers," he says, pointing out that few are free of blame for the country's problems.
"In every society, there are thieves and rapists," Commander Kouchai says, to catcalls from the circle of men. "Anyone who says the Taliban are pagan is not a Muslim himself."
Few predicted the swiftness of the Taliban retreat. US marines reinforced their presence yesterday near the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, the radical Islamic militia's last bastion. The Northern Alliance also claimed to have quelled a three-day revolt by fighters loyal to Mr. bin Laden, at a fortress-prison near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
The Pashtuns of Mohamed Agha say the collapse of the Taliban is permitting a return to a more democratic, traditional rule - one that has been stifled, even for the Taliban's ethnic Pashtun brethren, during five years of Taliban rule.
Known as the "granary of Kabul," Logar Province has long been an important battleground. Mujahideen factions fighting in the early 1990s shelled the capital from this valley.
Northern Alliance tanks on hills at the north end of the valley point directly at Mohamed Agha, 25 miles south of Kabul, in case there is any doubt about who now rules now.
But local leaders say that, so far, they are being given a free hand to choose their own governor and security chiefs. They welcome the change.
"We don't want a government to impose its rules and laws against us," says Kouchai, after the jirga. "Now we are free to say what we want.
"The way has been paved for democracy," says Massoud, who directed the jirga. "When the government has been appointed by the power of the gun, no one can speak or do anything. A few days ago, we could not talk or give our ideas. Now we can speak, even against the government."
That laissez faire attitude was unexpected, they say, when Kabul changed hands two weeks ago. The village braced for attack amid rumors that Mohamed Agha was overrun with Taliban fighters and their hated Arab, Chechen, and Pakistani militant allies. To avoid bloodshed, and as a signal of neutrality, officials raised a UN flag.
"The Northern Alliance wanted to attack our province, because of reports of 'Arabs' here. We asked them to come peacefully," says Gholamghaus Nasseri, the district commander who raised the flag. "The alliance was worried about Chechens, Arabs, and [Pakistanis] here - and they were right, there were many of them." Since then, Commander Nasseri says, the villagers have been treated well by Kabul's de facto rulers.
"There has been no discrimination. The Northern Alliance, if they want to rule this area, they can't govern all the area. That can only be done by local people."
Material from the wire services was used for this report.