The capital of Afghanistan was tense as rumors sped from house to house that the Taliban's chief enemy, Northern Alliance military leader Ahmad Shah Masood, was assassinated on Sunday.
At press time, Mr. Masood's commanders were still denying his death. But US and Russian intelligence sources confirm it.
What isn't disputed is that Masood's departure from the scene would radically change the balance of power in Afghanistan, and raises concerns that the Taliban's brand of Islamic fundamentalism would spread through the region.
With open support from Russia, Iran, and several Central Asian states, and rumored covert support from India and the United States, the so-called "Lion of Panjshir" was projected by many Western leaders as the last bulwark against the Taliban militia that took over the bulk of Afghanistan nearly five years ago.
"If he's dead, the war will go into a much more active phase," says Sergei Kazyennov, of the Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow.
"The Taliban and [alleged international terrorist leader Osama] bin Laden will definitely be stimulated by this. Outside participants, such as Iran and Russia, will move to organize a big coalition against the Taliban because, for surrounding countries ... the Taliban represents an enormous danger."
Masood has been hailed by friends and enemies as a brilliant field commander, a man of tremendous charisma and personal loyalty, who single-handedly held together the ragged remnants of the mujahideen resistance that drove Soviet forces to withdraw in 1989 after a decade-long occupation.
Whether he is dead or even gravely injured, experts say it is just a matter of time before his coalition of warlords in the rugged northeast begins to fall apart.
"If Ahmad Shah Masood is dead, the anti-Taliban alliance is also dead," says Grigory Bondarevsky, Central Asia expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow and a former an advisor to Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s. "Masood was the single figure capable of uniting the diverse opposition, and also obtaining some recognition for the alliance abroad."
"Afghans have a different attitude toward war," says Gen. Hamid Gul, who as former head of Pakistan's interservices intelligence agency was in charge of arming and training the anti-Soviet mujahideen. "They'll be fighting each other, negotiating, and doing business with each other all at the same time. When the Taliban took over in 1995-96, they took over whole provinces without firing a shot. They just bribed commanders."
While Masood's status is still unclear, the attack against the anti-Taliban leader was brazen and brilliantly planned. Two Arab men with Belgian passports, posing as journalists, reportedly carried a video camera packed with explosives into Masood's headquarters in Khwaja Bahauedin, in the northern province of Takhar on Sunday. The ensuing explosion reportedly killed both of Masood's assassins, along with a bodyguard. Masood, who was immediately taken to the hospital in Dushanbe, was said to be gravely injured.
"There are reports that the assassins were 'Afghan Arabs' - Arab militants based in Afghanistan," says Amin Tarzi, senior research associate for the Middle East with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. "If Masood was not killed, this will create a backlash against 'Afghan Arabs.' This has actually been happening for the past few months," Mr. Tarzi says, with Afghans from the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turkmen ethnic groups complaining of the policies of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Masood is a member of the Tajik ethnic group.
The Taliban has denied responsibility for the suicide attack. Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Muttawakil told reporters in a phone interview, "He was an enemy in the front lines, but the Taliban were not involved. If we had been, we would take responsibility."
That Masood was able to retain control of his fractious coalition is testament to not just his personal charisma but also his elaborate system of patronage. From his home base in the Panjshir Valley, which begins just 31 miles northeast of Kabul, Masood controlled the flow of emeralds and other gems from that region's rich mines. With the profits from these mines, Masood could send money to commanders in the field, to pay soldiers' salaries and buy weapons.
Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and political leader of the Northern Alliance, yesterday named intelligence chief Gen. Fahim to stand in for Masood. But many experts say his successor would face a near impossible task. "The personality factor is tremendously important, and especially in the East," says Mr. Kazyennov. "The Taliban will use this factor. Indeed, they are using it already. They've already launched attacks on Northern Alliance positions."
Other experts, however, say the Taliban should not expect easy victory. "The forces [Masood] created and the people he promoted into leadership will continue the resistance. Of course it would be a huge loss, but such a loss wouldn't undermine the opposition completely," says Alexander Ruchkin defense expert with the Parliamentskaya Gazeta newspaper.
Still, there remains a dangerous potential for rival commanders to fight for control within the anti-Taliban coalition or simply switch sides. At the moment, most appear to be waiting to hear confirmation of Masood's status.
"There is no fighting at present," says one Western relief official based in Feyzabad. "These rumors have not had any effect on the military situation."
On the streets of Kabul, a city controlled by the Taliban for nearly five years, many Afghans expressed hope that the commander was still alive.
"If Masood is dead, people will be unhappy, very unhappy," says Abdul, a young merchant. Asked if Masood's death will bring an end to the war, he replies, "No, it won't bring peace. There will be another commander."