Hundreds of men gathered in this provincial capital yesterday to celebrate the arrival of their new governor, Abdel Hakim Taniwal. He had just returned from Australia to accept a challenging offer from his old friend, Hamid Karzai, the chairman of Afghanistan's interim administration.
Mr. Taniwal, a former Kabul University lecturer in sociology and anthropology, was heralded by the chants of schoolboys and the embraces of tribal elders as a man who could bring peace and security to one of the most troubled corners of Afghanistan.
Sounds great, except that the man who wields the most power in these parts refuses outright to accept Taniwal's appointment. Badsha Khan Zadran, a hulking if affable warlord, says he is the rightful governor of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika Provinces eastern Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland and dismisses Mr. Karzai as a puppet who doesn't represent "the real Pashtuns."
"He [Karzai] appoints the governor in the morning, then he removes that one and appoints another one in the evening," scoffs Mr. Khan, dressed as usual in an immense turban, a drab olive military coat, and a golden-tipped ammunition belt slung across his chest.
Only half a mile across town, the new governor says in an interview just after his inaugural ceremony that Khan has grossly overestimated his power, and should step aside and cooperate with Karzai. "He thinks he is a big man," Taniwal says of Khan. "He wants to be the president of three provinces and to control both their military and civilian affairs. He appointed himself," says Taniwal, a respectable-looking man with a white beard and soft voice.
Taniwal and Khan, in fact, go back a long time. The two men almost the same age knew each other from the time when all Afghans were united against a common enemy, the Soviets; their fathers were friends too.
Their differences in another place and time might be small-town politics. But at the moment, they are Afghanistan's problems writ large. Their dress codes speak volumes about the struggle between the country's warlords and intelligentsia: one's claim to power is based on the number of guns loyal to him, while the other says his credentials as an educator give him the weapons Afghanistan clearly needs most.
The dispute has even broader implications, because it threatens to drag the US military into its center, a place it hardly wants to be while trying to stay focused on its chief target: going after Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
In fact, a 1,000-strong force led by British Royal Marines, supported by US special forces and airpower, began a major sweep through southeastern Afghanistan yesterday. The task of "Operation Snipe" is to destroy Al Qaeda caves and bunkers and to kill or capture any Al Qaeda militants and Taliban fighters.
Khan and his forces have been important allies of the US military's war on terror in this part of the country. While US officials say they will stay out of internal disputes, that could become increasingly difficult. Khan and his troops, 600 of whom were trained by US special forces, say the US owes them a debt of gratitude for help against Al Qaeda. But Khan's opponents say they can't understand why US forces right here in Khost have done nothing to rein in the chaos.
For Karzai, Khan represents a challenge to his government's authority. How he deals with his most defiant warlord is a test of his administration's ability to lay down the law throughout Afghanistan. It is an obstacle course increasingly important for Karzai to navigate ahead of next month's loya jirga, or national council, which will give some 1,500 Afghans a chance to decide who should govern the country and how.
The power struggle could escalate into a military showdown between Khan's army and Karzai's government forces, who are a virtual replica of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance militia that helped overthrow the Taliban last fall. But they are also seen here as an enemy force: One commander in Khan's army, Malik Jan, says he and 200 other Pashtuns were, until a week ago, held and tortured in a Kabul jail for more than 20 days.
Yesterday, Khan spoke just before leaving for Gardez, where he was to meet a delegation from Kabul that is seeking a negotiated settlement.
Khan says he will not speak to them unless they recognize him as the governor of Paktia Province. A few minutes later Khan adds that he is, in fact, actually the governor of Khost and Paktika Provinces as well, adding that the UN envoy here had appointed him to the position last fall. Khan also says there is no way he will consider meeting Taniwal, an illegitimate outsider in Khan's opinion.
"They have sent this governor to create problems for me and for the people. Not only do I oppose him [Taniwal], but all the tribal chiefs here oppose him because he is the appointee of the Northern Alliance," Khan says.
He says he is confident that the US will stay out of his dispute with Karzai. "I am the greatest enemy of Al Qaeda here, and I am helping the US forces, so I am sure the US will not get involved."
Khan dismisses Karzai as a mouthpiece of those around him. "I am much better than he is, because I fought Al Qaeda," says Khan.
Khan's men think Karzai is pursuing a vendetta against the Pashtun warlord because he did not support Karzai, also a Pashtun, during the peace talks in Bonn, Germany, last year, instead backing a member of the loyal family.
At the governor's mansion, where visitors roamed among blooming red rose bushes to congratulate Taniwal, Khost's new governor sounded a slightly more conciliatory note. He says he is happy to meet Khan, but will recognize him only as a senior tribal leader who has made great contributions to the "resistance" against the 1979 Soviet invasion.
He says that even when Karzai was willing to have Khan govern one province, Khan insisted on asserting his rule over three. "How can you help the people when you oppress them?," asks Taniwal, a son of a former parliament member who speaks English comfortably and wants to stabilize Khost so that international aid groups will be able to come here to rebuild.
"Why should there be a power struggle like this? We should have a vote. We should get rid of this Kalashnikov culture," Taniwal says.
Taniwal's Tanis tribe, also a part of the broader Pashtun ethnic group, is much smaller than the Zadrans. But that, he says, will no longer be important in the new Afghanistan. "Badsha Khan has no official position in the province, and he is not in control of any province," Taniwal says. "He should leave us in peace. Perhaps we can seek a role that is best for him."