"We're not into nation-building," said President Bush most recently, only some two weeks ago. But already, his administration is deeply engaged in trying to create some combination of rival ethnic groups to govern Afghanistan after the expected disintegration of the ruling Taliban.
The administration is contemplating a mind-boggling array of tenuous groupings with shifting loyalties. There are the Pashtuns, who have dominated the Taliban with the help of Pakistan's support. There is the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, often internally divided, and now without its charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated in a suicide bombing on Sept. 9. There are various minorities like the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Hazara, all contending against the majority Pashtuns.
If and when the Taliban collapses, the Northern Alliance is ready to move into the capital of Kabul and create an interim government. But that is opposed by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who worries about facing a hostile regime on his border. He has obtained assurance from British Prime Minister Tony Blair - which Secretary of State Colin Powell was expected to reinforce on a trip to Pakistan late this week - that the new regime will be broad-based and include Pashtuns.
Seeking to keep the Northern Alliance from dominating the process, the State Department has checked out the exiled former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. The Bush administration is inclined to support him as the centerpiece for a gathering of Afghan elders and notables that would create a regime representing all anti-Taliban elements. General Musharraf has said he would accept the ex-king - a Pashtun - as head of a new government.
Musharraf said at a news conference that a new order in Afghanistan "must ensure unity and stability of Afghanistan and bring peace over there." But if the Taliban collapses and there is a power vacuum in Kabul, the Northern Alliance may be hard to stop from moving in. Its civilian leader, Abdullah, holds the title of foreign minister in the government that the Taliban ousted in 1996, which is still recognized by the United Nations.
After more than 20 years of war, Afghanistan hardly knows what peace looks like. And President Bush, who campaigned against nation-building as a Democratic folly, may now find himself called upon to help build a nation.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.