More complex than a Persian rug, the tangled weave of regional fiefdoms, tribal and religious rivalries, and enemy-of-my-enemy alliances that are Afghanistan offers a good example of why the Bush administration has said it opposes US involvement in nation-building.
But nation-building is very much preoccupying President Bush and his top advisers, who seem to be conceding that the political outcome in Afghanistan may be every bit as important as the progress of the US-led military campaign there.
What has become clear, as the US seeks to root out Afghanistan's Taliban government, is that facilitating a friendlier regime is not simply a matter of coming up with one that will battle - rather than harbor - terrorists and better serve the Afghan people.
Building a new government for Afghanistan requires two daunting tasks: bringing together Afghanistan's factions to
accept an alternative regime, and balancing the interests of some crucial US friends and some longtime thorns, including Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran, even China.
Mr. Bush indicated as much in his Thursday evening press conference. To a certain degree, analysts add, this priority is influencing the US military campaign and could determine when and if US ground troops are sent in.
The need to get the political future in order is prompted by a number of undesirable scenarios. Under one, international negotiations are so slow and fruitless that, when the Taliban is felled, no governmental alternative exists in Afghanistan and a vacuum is formed - the very scenario that led to the Taliban's rise in the 1990s.
A second one is that, with no broadly acceptable alternative in sight, the Taliban manage to hunker down despite the US onslaught and hold on until the severe Afghan winter sets in, making its ouster - and the crushing of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization - more problematic.
But more optimistic scenarios are plausible if several key factors fall into place over the coming days and weeks, some analysts say.
"The overriding US interest right now is to assist in creating a state structure [in Afghanistan] that will ensure this [harboring of an international terrorist organization] won't happen again," says Stephen Cohen, a Central Asia expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That means coming up with a neutral, nonaligned state, which is something Pakistan and India and Iran have said they would favor. The trick now," he adds, "will be to convince the Afghanis that this is the way to go."
A desire to avoid creating a worse situation in and around Afghanistan is emerging as a key reason the US did not respond with military might sooner in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush's early post-attack comments suggested the US might act quickly against a host of nations found to be supporting Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.
But subsequent US action and Bush's words at his first televised press conference suggest that punishing other regimes - Iraq chief among them - has been put aside while the US focuses on the military and political campaigns in Afghanistan.
The US attention to a political endgame can be seen in Bush's sudden dispatch of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who left for Pakistan yesterday and will stop next in India. It also suggests that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has considerable influence with the American president.
In his press conference, Bush echoed what Mr. Blair has been saying for weeks: "We ... should learn a lesson from the previous engagement in the Afghan area, that we should not just leave after a military objective has been achieved."
The president also suggested that the United Nations has a central role in what he called the "stabilization of a future government" in Afghanistan, another point the British have been urging at the UN.
But becoming much more involved in nation-building in Afghanistan presents a new set of difficult issues.
For example, who should be included in a new government for Afghanistan? Does a US commitment to sustaining a new government mean committing to American forces on the ground?
Consensus appears to have formed around the idea of some symbolic role for the deposed king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who now lives in Rome. The hope is that he would serve as a unifying guarantor over a loose confederation of tribes and regions - a system Afghanistan lived under until 1978.
"What people envision is a role something like what King Juan Carlos of Spain played in his country's post-Franco democratization, where he didn't rule but served as a national figure of unity," says Jack Goldstone, a specialist in revolutions and nation building at the University of California at Davis. "If you can bring together the tribal leaders of the south and north, under some sponsorship of the king, there is a foundation for a stable government."
Then there is the sticking point of Afghanistan's neighbors - perhaps the most crucial, from the US perspective, being Pakistan.
As it became clear who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks and the degree to which the Taliban supports Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, it seemed plausible that the US would work with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the Taliban's strongest military opponent.
But Pakistan, which has dropped its support for the Taliban and granted the US use of its airspace in the antiterrorism war, opposes the Northern Alliance taking power next door. Pakistan's objections are that the Northern Alliance is supported by archrival India, as well as by Russia and Iran.
"That's one reason the American bombing on the Taliban's northern units [facing the Northern Alliance] has not been as ferocious as it could have been," says Mr. Cohen. As a result, the US has not facilitated what was once thought to be the alliance's easy entrance into Kabul.
Cohen says a preferable scenario now is government by a loya jirga, or tribal council, which would give Afghanis a form of government they are familiar with (the concept has existed for millenniums).
That approach could also win the support of key international players.
The countries in the region, analysts say, are willing to go along with a neutral, nonaligned Afghanistan on certain conditions: that a new government not pose a regional threat, that it not export weapons and unrest in the region, and that the refugee crisis be addressed. The last is especially important for Pakistan, where more than 2 million refugees from Afghanistan have sought an escape from hardships and, now, war.
Already, though, different factions are backing different loya jirga proposals - a stumbling block that experts say is surmountable.
"With US insistence and a lot of international money, you could impose one loya jirga," says Cohen.
The biggest immediate risk, says Dr. Goldstone, is that a military victory before providing for the political aftermath could cause problems in the future.
"It's imperative to move as quickly as possible to get the foundation for a post-Taliban government in place," says Goldstone, who believes the administration has now grasped the need to do so.
Without that, he says, "the military effort risks being handicapped or misdirected."