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After Afghanistan election, governors seek distance from 'illegal' Karzai

In Panjshir Province, Governor Bahij says he wants to thwart protest of Afghanistan election. But he wants more autonomy.

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Abdullah now heads the foundation that is building a museum on Salaar Hill. The provincial culture minister says it will preserve Massoud's clothes, guns, and other personal effects. There will also be an exhibit on Afghanistan's wartime history – an ambitious undertaking even for what appears to be a massive complex.

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Massoud remains a polarizing figure in Afghan politics. For his fellow ethnic Tajiks, he is a hero who united Afghanistan's minorities into the Northern Alliance to fight the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. After the US teamed up with the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban, the Tajiks dreamed of leading the country into a more prosperous future.

However, with the charismatic Massoud dead, the Northern Alliance never made a coherent political transition. For some minorities, particularly the Panjshiri Tajiks, Massoud now represents a dream denied by a US-backed Pashtun government.

Many Pashtuns, meanwhile, mock posters of Massoud around Kabul that proclaim him "the national hero of Afghanistan." They see it as the propaganda of ethnic minorities who – in their view – have overrun the government in Kabul while edging out Pashtuns.

During the election, Abdullah stressed his mixed ethnicity, both Tajik and Pashtun. But he never escaped his close ties with Massoud, and the vote broke down heavily along ethnic lines.

He trounced Karzai in the Tajik provinces that formed the old Northern Alliance strongholds. Abdullah took Panjshir 68-29 over Karzai. Governors like Mr. Atta and Bahij who are now calling for more autonomy are Tajiks and former comrades-in-arms with Massoud – and Abdullah.

"He has changed himself into a very prestigious actor, the most serious leader of the Tajiks in Afghanistan for now," says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

Election fallout: three-way divide?

The election fallout, therefore, has the potential to send Afghanistan into a three-way divide between the ethnic Tajiks, the Taliban's coalition of insurgents, and a rump Afghan government led by Karzai.

Abdullah, however, has always shown reticence to play either the ethnic card or to call for popular protest. Such moves have the potential to send him and his supporters back to the days of those photos on Salaar Hill, wearing fatigues and holding AK-47s.

"The north has further potential for insurgency, but what I have noticed from Abdullah's position, as leader of this front, he is not willing to go toward insurgency for achieving political power," says Mr. Rahmani.

Restrict Karzai's power to Kabul?

For Barfield, the ethnic minorities remain too divided internally to speak in terms of another ethnic clash in Afghanistan. But regional players could rally around Abdullah to restrict Karzai's powers to Kabul.

The international community might even find a more constructive way forward in Afghanistan by coopting such a movement early.

"I think they can get ahead of the game and tell Karzai, 'no governors go into a province without [local] vetting,' " says Barfield. The strategy outlined by NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal "says you need a reliable Afghan partner, but that doesn't say that reliable partner has to be Kabul. They might reach around and deal with local, regional governments."

Is US strategy in Afghanistan working?