In the dust-doused city of Khost, where roosters compete with gunfire to announce the break of day, it is often hard to tell who is calling the shots.
First there is Badsha Khan, an imposing warlord whose resemblance to Iraq's Saddam Hussein belies his friendly and cooperative ties with the US.
Just down the road is the long-bearded Mustafa, the city's Kabul-backed security chief.
Mustafa, who describes himself as "embattled," sits atop the police compound surrounded by several dozen soldiers who regularly trade fire with the gunmen of Mr. Khan who says Mustafa must go.
Then there is Malim Jan, a former Taliban commander and smaller-scale warlord who controls the city's fortress and is allied with Zakim Khan, the warlord in neighboring Paktika Province.
If this isn't difficult enough to comprehend, just wait. The guide to the warlord universe only begins here. All the above are Pashtuns, who tend collectively to resent the influence of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Turkmen, Nuristanis, and myriad other ethnic groups few Westerners had heard about before Sept. 11.
Now, the US wants to unite Afghanistan's Army and help its leaders build one multiethnic national force. The move is motivated both by Washington's interests in improving its effectiveness in the battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, and from the realization that the war on terror necessitates aid in spreading peace and security throughout Afghanistan.
An integrated Afghan Army is seen by many analysts as key to building a national identity. And, although it sounds very promising, memories of fratricidal warfare over the past 10 years has built up ethnic and tribal ties at the expense of "Afghanness." The biggest challenge of all may be finding a way to convince regional warlords that the nationalization of the armed forces is in their interest: More power at the center may mean less at the fringes.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that US troops will soon begin training a national army. The Pentagon says that within four to six weeks 125 to 150 US special forces troops will provide "basic soldier skills" to Afghan national and border forces.
Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy on Afghanistan, said yesterday on the lawn of the US Embassy in Kabul that the US will train Afghan military leaders, who will train an army of 100,000 to 200,000 men. They, in turn, will present a more effective front against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces who are, according to several Afghan and US officials, regrouping and planning to launch guerrilla attacks in the spring.
"Our overall objective is to beat Al Qaeda. But at the same time, we want to prevent conditions that leave a situation of chaos that allowed a terrorist group to sponsor a state," Mr. Khalilzad said. "We are going to start training the Afghan Army as quickly as possible. Some units will be deployed relatively quickly, and may be sent to places where there is conflict."
While Kabul has been relatively calm since the Taliban fled US bombing last November, ongoing conflict rages in several Afghan provinces, including Khost. And while Afghan officials say it would be extremely helpful if the 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were expanded and dispatched around the country, Western participants in the peacekeeping team seem skittish about becoming entrenched in provinces beyond the Afghan capital.
"The question of extending ISAF geographically is not on the table in the immediate future," Khalilzad says. "But there are other ways to deal with the challenges of security we have."
The hope is that with US training, Afghan military officials in Kabul can create a national army of soldiers with allegiance to the central government, not a panoply of warlords whose power often emanates from tribal ties, if not brute force.
"We are starting a campaign to have a new army, and it must be different from before, one made up of a professional soldiers," says Gen. Abdul Qadir Gulzad, the chief of national security and defense affairs and a military adviser to the interim government chairman, Hamid Karzai.
"It will no longer be, 'this man is from this province, and he must stay in this province,' " he says. The interim government, he adds, is concerned about reports that Pashtuns are frustrated with the US because it mainly used Dari speakers, or Tajiks, who dominated the Northern Alliance the forward forces who ran the Taliban out of Kabul. In the future, he says, ethnicity need not be an issue. He points to the time when the mujahideen fought the invading Soviet soldiers as a model of national cooperation.
"The idea is to end this problem, where people are always loyal to a commander who is a friend or from the same tribe," he says. "We want to bring people from Kandahar to work in Mazar-e Sharif," and vice versa, he says, denoting two radically different parts of the country. "Now, a young man from Herat won't be stationed in Herat, but maybe another part of the country."
General Gulzad, a man with 40 years of military experience, says it can be done. "We can recruit the warlords and put them in leadership positions because we respect their contributions," he says. "They will have symbolic roles as commanders, but their deputies will be professionals."
The battle to build an army that crosses geographic, ethnic, and tribal boundaries will be formidable. Kamal Khan Zadran, Khost's military commander and deputy governor as well as the younger brother of warlord Badsha Khan says that Pashtuns from this region do not even feel safe going to Kabul.
"If I have a turban on," he says, "they will stop me at every checkpoint."