Power shift in Afghanistan

Fighting broke out this weekend in Kandahar between rival Pashtun factions.

Three days after forcing the Taliban to abandon their last major stronghold, the southern city of Kandahar, Afghan warlords are once again turning against each other.

In the streets of Kandahar, fighting erupted on Saturday between two rival factions of the Pashtun ethnic group who make up the majority in the Kandahar area. Their dispute revolved around raw power, and while Pashtun leaders, including the new Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai, was attempting to hold peace talks yesterday to resolve the internal conflicts, local Afghans say the situation in Kandahar continues to be tense.

"There are three governments in the city, and the situation is out of control," says Hafiz Abdul Haq, who left Kandahar on Saturday and arrived in a refugee camp in Chaman on the same day. "I am so afraid, there is no guarantee for my safety. I want only for the Taliban to return. The government of the Taliban was safe. Now there is looting."

The problems that beset the victorious Afghan factions in Kandahar are a composite of the challenges that Afghanistan's new rulers face in cities around the country, and indeed, in the formation of a new national government. Even though most of the warlords and political leaders who now control Afghanistan shared a common goal of throwing out the Taliban, their agreement ended once the Taliban were defeated. Now, some top warlords, such as Pashtun leaders Pir Syed Gailani and Haji Abdul Qadir, reject the new interim national government put together last week in Bonn. Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum told US officials yesterday he will now cooperate with the new interim government.

In a country with so many possible dividing lines - by ethnicity, language, religion, and tribe - Afghanistan's new leaders are searching for ways to bind their country together.

The man who bears this burden is Hamid Karzai, a southern Pashtun leader who was recently selected as Afghanistan's interim leader. This week, Mr. Karzai has been shuttling between rival warlords in the city of Kandahar. Unlike Pashtun expatriates in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, who had organized an anti-Taliban council called the Eastern Shura before taking the eastern city of Jalalabad, the Pashtuns of the south have no such council. This leaves them with the unwieldy task of forging political alliances between armed groups, while the smoke of war is still clearing.

The chief dispute in Kandahar lies between Pashtun warlord and former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai and another former governor, Mullah Naqib Ullah, who handed over the government of Kandahar to the nascent Taliban movement seven years ago. Mr. Gul Agha's followers criticize Mullah Naqib for his close ties to the Taliban, while Mullah Naqib's supporters say that Gul Agha's troops are unruly thieves.

In Quetta, where tribal elders and commanders for the Pashtun ethnic group are gathering to sign up with one group or the other, Afghans say the best way to secure peace is to send in peacekeeping troops. "With the help of the United Nations, we can solve the big problems of Afghanistan," says Muhammad Naeem Maftoon Jalalzai, a medical student from Kandahar, who spoke this weekend at a symposium of the National Youth Union of Afghanistan. Once UN troops are able to keep armed groups from fighting, he says, then Afghan leader Hamid Karzai can organize a supreme tribal council, or loya lirga, to select a permanent government. "I believe Karzai is a very good man, he will solve the problems of Afghanistan," says Mr. Jalalzai, an ethnic Pashtun.

But in the border town of Chaman, where hundreds of Afghan refugee families are residing in United Nations refugee camps the mood is much more pessimistic.

Typical is Ahmad, a farmer from Helmand province, who left his village eight days ago because of extensive US bombing and now lives in the refugee camp of Killi Faizo here in Chaman. He does not trust many of the leaders of the new post-Taliban government.

"If it is the government of Karzai, I will go. But if it is General Dostum or [President Burhanuddin] Rabbani, I will not go," he swears, holding his two-year-old son Shawali in his arms. "I will die here in Pakistan. If America kills me, it's okay, but I will not go to Afghanistan under Dostum and Rabbani. They are thieves."

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