Even as American troops and allied Afghan fighters conduct their heaviest assault so far this year against a determined group of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, surging ethnic tensions and jockeying warlords are undermining dreams of unity and peace elsewhere in Afghanistan.
The UN-brokered interim government of Hamid Karzai, in Kabul, is struggling to contain growing ethnic violence and turf battles in the north and east.
These are quickly becoming the biggest threats faced by Mr. Karzai, as he grapples to bring peace to a nation that has known nothing but war - and warlord rule - for more than two decades. To do the job, Karzai has made constant requests for a more robust international peacekeeping force - a plea that seems to be gaining ground as Karzai wrestles with the ethnic divisions central to the nation's problems.
The bitter homecoming of Abdurahim Gholam Rabbani, a pharmacist displaced from his home in northwestern Afghanistan, is an example of how divisive fears remain. Mr. Rabbani is a Pashtun, the ethnic group that formed the backbone of the Taliban. The arrival last November of ethnic Uzbek troops of General Abdul Rashid Dostum - a US-backed warlord with a brutal history in the Afghan north - forced 500 Pashtun families to flee to Maslach Camp in western Afghanistan.
The first time the bushy-bearded Rabbani went back to his village, a few weeks after fleeing, he found his pharmacy looted, his house destroyed, and Uzbek soldiers seeking revenge.
"'Are you Pashtun?' they asked me. 'Are you Taliban?' I said no, but they held me for one month," Rabbani recalled last week in the tent he now calls home, in this forlorn, muddy camp filled with other Afghans.
The second time Rabbani returned, a couple weeks ago, he was rounded up with a string of other family heads, accused again of backing the Taliban, and forced to buy his way to freedom.
"They told us they would kill us, if we didn't pay them money," Rabbani says. "These are local commanders, who do not think they will be in power for long. [Interim Prime Minister] Karzai has to look at these small cases, because they can create big problems."
Uzbek and Pashtun rivalries are among many simmering across the north. In a power play that analysts say is in anticipation of a June loya jirga, or grand assembly, during which delegates will divide the spoils of victory in a new Afghanistan government, Dostum's forces are locking horns with those of the ethnic Tajik-dominated troops of Mohamed Atta.
A recent peace deal reached between the two warlords, to disarm and share control of the town of Khulm, did not prevent Dostum units from rolling with tanks into Shulgara, 45 miles southwest of Mazar-e Sharif, on Feb. 20. Deepening the resentment, Mr. Atta's troops have been given a larger percentage of troops in a joint UN-backed police force in the city, which Mr. Dostum ruled for years in the 1990s.
And while that contest simmers, portions of the tribal "Pashtun belt" in the east of the country are in disarray after the collapse of Taliban rule. While Karzai is himself Pashtun, his writ seems even less respected in these areas than in other trouble spots. One recent appointment he made of a governor for Ghazni province sparked a return message from the local council that "we'll take any Hindu in the bazaar" over his candidate.
"Karzai isn't getting it right," says a reliable diplomatic source in Kabul, who asked not to be further identified. "He has delayed, dithered and not made the right choices. It is not good." The result in the east is a "big, ugly mess."
In the north, where the three main warlords are meant to "check each other," the source says, "Atta and Dostum sign [peace] pledges, while their lieutenants whack each other."
The warlords are meant to be allies, and part of Karzai's government. But such residual tension is why Karzai is continuing repeated calls for an expansion of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). British-led, but currently limited to keeping the peace in the capital, Kabul, the 5,000-strong, 18-nation force may be the key to providing reassurance to Afghans that war will not return.
Echoing a view that is gaining credence in Washington, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan last week called for an expansion of the UN force for the "long haul," beyond its June mandate. Mr. Annan warned that peacekeepers "should never be withdrawn abruptly or prematurely."
"Peacekeepers should leave as soon as they can, once they have helped create the conditions under which a country can maintain stability," Mr. Annan said. "We must be prepared to stay the course ... otherwise all our work will have been in vain."
That is the belief of the Pashtun families in Maslach camp, who say they don't trust their ethnic rivals without foreign troops on the ground.
"We hope that if they [peacekeepers] send their troops to every district, the problem will be solved," says another Pashtun elder in the camp, who goes by the one name Abdurahim. Pashtuns who have stayed in villages under Dostum's Uzbek rule have faced widespread abuse.
Looking for all the world like he could, in fact, be a former Taliban leader, with long beard and dark turban, Mr. Abdurahim says his family had nothing to do with the former Islamic zealots who ruled Afghanistan.
"We were not in the [Taliban] military, but now there is no law, and we are shaking because of these troops, we are so afraid," Abdurahim says, as Pashtun elders surrounding him in the refugee camp tent nod in agreement, big beards bobbing.
"We just hope you can be a big voice, to take our small problems to the peacekeepers."