( Editor's note : On Monday, the opening session of the loya jirga was postponed one day because of "logistical and preparatory" problems, according to Afghan officials.)
For centuries, Pashtun elders have ruled this way: Circles of turbaned, robed men sat on dusty carpets, making their decisions under the wide bowl of the Afghan sky.
Today, dressed much the same way, and divided by many of the same regional, ethnic, and ideological differences of their ancestors, 1,500 Afghan leaders are gathering in Kabul for their most important loya jirga or supreme council in living memory.
All week, Pashtuns and Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, and a myriad of other ethnic groups little known to the world before Sept. 11 will haggle over their country's future. Who among them will be chosen to lead the way? Can they turn a nation sundered by tribalism, Islamic extremism, resurgent warlords, poverty, and vicious discrimination against women into a stable, modern political entity?
Some of the delegates are women, some are refugees. Some have US college degrees, others are illiterate. All will be players in what promises to be the most diverse and closely observed election process in Afghan history.
Which ethnic groups and leaders will come out on top, as Afghanistan embarks on this experiment in representative democracy? Following are portraits of five of the potential key players who have their hands on the levers of power from guns, to money, religion, tribalism, and politics. Any one of them from the urbane, fluent English-speaking Hamid Karzai, to the powerful warlord of the southeast, Badsha Khan Zadran could help or hinder the loya jirga process, thus supporting or undermining the effort to remove Afghanistan from the list of places where terrorists find a home.
SHEBERGHAN, AFGHANISTAN - When Abdul Rashid Dostum was a little boy, a flood swept through his village. Fearless, the future warlord rushed out to play in the rising waters. He was later found unconscious far from home. His exasperated mother began to tether him to her leg or to a bedpost to keep him out of trouble.
Later, as a schoolboy, he often fought with other kids, and regularly came home with his shirt in shreds. So his mother sewed him a thick, wiry mesh vest, a type of light armor traditionally worn by Uzbek warriors.
"It was good. It never tore. But the neck was too tight, and I almost choked," says Dostum, whose steely browed, stoic countenance cracks into the tiniest grin at a memory he says he's never shared. "I came back to my mother and said it wasn't suitable for fighting," he laughs. So she simply sewed him another.
But the last thing Dostum, now General Dostum, wants to be called is a warlord "because I am not," he says. "I will never feel hurt if I am called a fighter. But if I am called a warlord, it hurts me. I have not just fought for the sake of fighting. I have always fought for my country's freedom."
Dostum and Afghanistan's many other warlords the kinds of men who have ruled this country for centuries on the basis of tribal, ethnic, and geographical ties have had many opportunities to fight in recent decades. But a love of freedom has not always been the guiding light of their struggle. A 10-year fight against the Soviet occupation, which ended in 1989 afforded many of these men the opportunity to obtain personal armies, political power bases, weapons, allies, and reputations. But in the post-Soviet years, shorn of a common enemy, the warlords of Afghanistan tore the nation apart and fought a brutal civil war that opened the door for the Taliban, who were initially welcomed as a stabilizing influence for an increasingly fragmented nation.
The Taliban are gone now. And with the world's eyes on Afghanistan, many warlords have found it difficult to control their fiefdoms when a central government is supposed to lead the way to peace.
Dostum says that he has the transition from war chieftain to peace-loving political power broker figured out. Now, he argues, his fight is not for territory, but for Afghanistan's reconstruction.
Some might question whether a man who has spent nearly a quarter century of leading troops into battle, still holds sway over 7,000 troops, and recently told them "after God, I am your boss," is really changing his stripes, or simply adapting to the necessities of the day.
An Uzbek who initially entered the Afghan fight against the Soviet Union in the late 1970s on the side of the communists, he along with his Jowzjan troops named for his province and known as some of the most ferocious soldiers in Afghanistan fought both with the Soviets and later in the six-year civil war against the various factions of mujahideen or holy warriors who had helped evict the Soviets. As the 1989 to 1995 civil war ground on, Dostum enjoyed an increasingly ferocious reputation. According to Ahmed Rashid's book, "Taliban," he once had one of his own soldiers accused of stealing tied to the treads of a tank and rolled to his death. In one Taliban attempt to take Mazar-e Sharif in 1997 and again when they were retreating last fall soldiers who might have surrendered or been captured seem to have wound up in mass graves. Only last month, prisoners being held in a jail here were found near starvation.
Then, as now, it would be hard to find anyone who took a lead role in this country's long war with clean hands. Dostum also enjoyed lots of foreign support from neighbors who saw him as a vanguard against the fundamentalist Taliban. And by allying himself with the Northern Alliance, a collection of mostly Tajik-led fighters in northern Afghanistan, Dostum made a shrewd choice; backed by the US, the Northern Alliance eventually overthrew the Taliban last fall. Because of their international connections, control of Kabul, and reputation as the most effectively positioned to take the lead in a post-Taliban government, its members remain the country's most potent military and political force. With their reluctant nod of approval, Dostum reasserted his control over much of northern Afghanistan, formalized by Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai's decision to appoint him as deputy defense minister and his "special envoy" to the north.
Dostum has emerged to promote himself as what might be called the moderate man's warlord, who will help bring peace and prosperity to all of Afghanistan.
"Civilians respect him because he was their only savior from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He's very moderate, and he says that women should play a role," says Hasima Mukhalis, a female engineer. "Maybe he once was a little bit cruel, but that is because the situation demanded it."
Dostum is the son of poor peasants who was once embarrassed to go to work in his beat-up shoes. "Now, he can buy shoes for my whole village," says Mohammed Said, a supervisor at a gas factory where he once worked with Dostum. "At that time, no one believed he would rise to something better in life. He was not well-educated, and his parents were poor."
Over more than two decades of war in Afghanistan, Dostum changed alliances many times, showing an almost uncanny ability to sense which way the wind blew and to change course when it seemed necessary.
These days, the warm winds that blow gently through the rose garden where Dostum sits, in the gated and heavily guarded palace he built in his hometown, seem to prevail in his favor.
Diplomats from the embassies of various neighboring countries wait patiently in his sunny courtyard, among a few of his favorite things: tropical trees, squawking peacocks, and a swimming pool turned into a chortling frog pond under the Taliban's reign.
"He is a good diplomat," says Anil Cicek, the consul-general of Turkey. "People who have a military origin often don't have good social skills, but he's not like that."
In the nearly six months since he was made minister, Dostum has rarely been in Kabul, except to meet with Karzai and to develop warm relations with the former king, who returned to Afghanistan from exile to oversee this month's loya jirga. Together, they are considered by some observers to be the three most powerful men in Afghanistan, and the most likely to counter the supremacy of the Northern Alliance.
With his calls for democracy and an end to violence, he has had perhaps more success than any of Afghanistan's men of military might. A relative state of security reigns here, sometimes because Dostum runs his own show, to the point of printing his own currency. He has two wives one Uzbek and one Tajik.
In late May, Dostum was named a loya jirga delegate, and during the delegate election process, popular support for him was effusive. Young boys carried a poster of Dostum declaring that it is "time to put down the gun and pick up the pen." Women inside the election grounds wore plain headscarves not all-encompassing burqas and said that they have Dostum to thank.
"I would like to ask you for your support for General Dostum," a master of ceremonies bellowed over a microphone to a crowd of thousands. "So who here is with him?" All raised their hands and cheered. There was no vote on paper, not even a perfunctory request for a show of hands for anyone "opposed." Dostum's seat on the coming loya jirga, his aides explained, has been secured among the 20 seats reserved for "important Afghan personalities."
Voters here say they think and hope that his youthful passion for a good fight has mellowed. "In the '90s, when Dostum had some enmity with one of his challengers, he didn't just get him. He used to kill every member of his family," says Ghulan Sadiq, an elderly man who wears a green and purple striped tribal robe. "Now, the great warrior has changed very much. Just as his hair became white, his heart became white. Before, it was black."
HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - The warlord Ismail Khan holds court in the great hall of his governor's mansion, a palace with ornate Louis XV chairs, Turkmen carpets, and brightly burning chandeliers, in the cultural center of Herat.
By returning from Iran to help evict the Taliban last year, Mr. Khan a Tajik who prefers to be known as a Farsifan, a Persian speaker basically regained control of the jugular vein of Afghanistan's economy. This is the point through which all goods, legal and otherwise, come into Afghanistan from Iran and Turkmenistan.
At the customs post on the road that leads from Herat to Iran, some 150 trucks loaded with tires, television sets, and other goods from Iran, as well as 500 mainly reconditioned cars from Dubai destined for Pakistan are processed every day. A similar but smaller form of cross-border activity occurs along the Turkmenistan frontier.
The Herati leader reportedly earns some $60 to $80 million a year much of it from the customs duties from these vehicles entering Afghanistan.
As a result, Herat's unofficial governor has become financially independent, far more than any other of Afghanistan's warlords. And with a provincial government whose budget stands at roughly $1 million a month, according to aid sources, this means that he is in the position to purchase significant military support to bolster his region's autonomy.
Both UN and other observers maintain that Khan's financial independence will enable him to continue rebuffing any attempts by the government in Kabul to assert itself in his areas of control, which include portions of at least four other provinces in the so-called Western Region. They believe that the only way to force Khan into accepting the democratic process is through concerted action by all concerned, the Europeans, the Iranians, and, in particular the United States.
"It is clear that unless the United States is willing to play a firmer role in pressuring these warlords nothing is going to happen. They're not going to listen to the EU or the UN," says one international observer.
As one of Afghanistan's most effective commanders during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, Khan clearly considers himself a man of the people. After that war, in which he gained national recognition by turning on the Soviets and killing several hundred of their soldiers and families, most locals and many observers here considered Khan as moderately peaceful and progressive.
He built a university, for example, and opened trade with Pakistan and Iran, thereby creating many jobs. He imposed a moderate form of Islamic law, which required women to cover their hair, but allowed them to both work and attend segregated schools.
But when the Taliban captured Herat in 1995, Khan fled to Iran. He returned in 1997, declaring he would retake his domain. But he was betrayed by a local commander who handed him over to the Taliban. Khan spent three years in a Kabul prison reportedly chained to a pipe before escaping with the help of a loyal supporter.
But many Heratis say that Khan is not the moderate man he once was. Some point to his decision to reestablish a Taliban-like religious police. Women say they are not regarded as active partners in the reconstruction process and are still prohibited from appearing in public without their all-encompassing burqas. And, unlike in Kabul, there is not a single woman working at the city's state-run Radio and Television station.
"One of the big problems is Ismail Khan is not focusing on our needs and our rights," says Permimah, a high school teacher and participant at a recent meeting in western Herat Province where women demanded more seats in the loya jirga. "We want full rights with men."
"He was once good for Afghanistan," agrees Nuria, a health worker, speaking about Khan, "but now he is only in power because he and his men have guns."
"Something must have happened to him during this period," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the seminal book "Taliban." Mr. Rashid, who has interviewed Khan repeatedly over the past 20 years, remembers him as a moderate with the interests of his people close at heart.
Khan agrees that Afghans want recovery, particularly peace and security, but he vehemently dismisses any notion that Heratis might be afraid of him.
"The people are desperate to find a way out of their poverty," he says, pointing to a group of women, cloaked in bright blue burqas, sitting in his great hall. "Look at those women who have come to see me in the middle of the night. They are not afraid of our rule. They are afraid of poverty," he says.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN While some Afghan power brokers derived their power from money or greed, others pulled men together by appealing to a more basic spiritual impulse.
The most effective of these, of course, was Mullah Muhammad Omar, the radical Taliban leader. But while some radical Islamists drew power by demonizing others, within Afghanistan there is an older, more prominent Islamic tradition of tolerance called Sufism, which draws power and unity by emphasizing the commonalities between different sects, rather than their differences.
Pir Sayad Ahmed Gailani, who lives in a walled compound in Kabul, is the top leader of the Sufis. During the Soviet period, Pir Gailani was one of the more prominent faces of the Islamic resistance movement in Peshawar, Pakistan, although hostility from Saudi patrons meant his party received less money than more hard-line Islamist parties such as the Hezb-I-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today, he is leader of the Mohaz I Milli I Islami, or National Islamic Front, which is staunchly nationalist, hostile to the power of mullahs and radical Islamists, and in favor of restoring the power of King Zahir Shah.
By mixing a more familiar brand of Islam with a more pro-Western political stance, he hopes that his participation in the loya jirga will help to drag Afghanistan away from the militant radical Islam that has left his country in ruins. He considers radical Islam to be all but dead here. "Afghanistan is basically a traditional society," says Gailani, who favors Armani suits and suede loafers over the traditional shalwar kameez. "And it was a very wrong calculation, both for Soviet communists and for Arab Islamic radicals to think they could reshape it."
"The Arabs pumped billions and billions of dollars into this country, but if you look at the percentage of good that they achieved, the result was almost zero," he smiles. "When the American bombers came, the Arabs made a disappearing act, almost like putting ice in the sun."
For centuries, the mystical, intensely spiritual Sufism was the most prevalent sect found throughout Central and South Asia, including Afghanistan. Muslim worshipers would often come to Sufi preachers, or pirs, because of their reputation for healing through prayer. And men like Gailani, who comes from a long line of Sufi preachers, developed a strong personal following that could rival that of any warlord or king.
During the time of the more orthodox Taliban, who ruled from 1996 until last fall, Gailani fled to Pakistan, and Sufism was repressed as heretical. Shrines were closed, preachers were jailed or forced into exile, and Afghans were encouraged to shed the trappings of Sufi worship, especially the forms of dance and music that the faithful used to enter a trance and commune with God. Even today, there are orthodox leaders in Afghanistan who would like to see the end of Sufism. Among these are former mujahideen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an eloquent Arabic speaker and staunch orthodox Sunni leader who is thought to be one of the men who encouraged Saudi families to fund the fight against the Soviets and later encouraged Arab fighters to live in Afghanistan.
Perhaps more important is Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of the Northern Alliance and the first Afghan president to serve after the fall of the Soviet-backed government. It was President Rabbani who proposed the radical transformation of Afghan society along Islamic and Koranic lines, including requirements for women to wear burqas and strict punishment for crimes, which were later adopted by the Taliban. And it is Rabbani who some people believe is the real power behind the present government.
But for Gailani who traveled to Afghanistan several times in the past few years to persuade the Taliban to moderate their behavior such radicalism will be neutralized by the stronger Afghan traditions.
For evidence, he points to a handful of graveyards in Kandahar and Khost, where dead Al Qaeda fighters are buried in mass graves after fierce battles last fall. Local Afghans have turned these graveyards into Sufi shrines. Women come to the graves and tie prayer-strings, hoping for the birth of a son. Farmers pray for better crops. "These guys must be turning in their graves," chuckles Gailani. "They came here to eradicate this practice, and now there are people praying over their graves."
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN When jeeps and pickup trucks come barreling through town, they bear the sullen portrait of Badsha Khan Zadran on the windshield, as though it were a registration document.
When Badsha Khan the most powerful warlord in southeastern Afghanistan enters a room, a hush descends. People make way or stand up as though a judge were entering a court. Badsha Khan was the first of the country's many military bosses to challenge Hamid Karzai outright, despite enjoying a key cooperative relationship with US-led forces in the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives or perhaps emboldened by it.
One of Badsha Khan's sons, Abdul Wali Khan, was content working in the automobile import-export business in Dubai when his father paid him a visit last December. But, Abdul Wali, a mild-mannered 20-something, says his dad made him an offer he couldn't refuse: Take up the post as commander in the city of Gardez in his father's army of approximately 3,000 men, or don't call yourself a son of Badsha Khan. "I told him I didn't want to go back to that bullet land," says Abdul Wali, who is slighter than his father a man in his mid-50s with the physique of a long out-of-shape linebacker. "I didn't know what to do but to accept the orders of my father."
Inside Badsha Khan's inner circles, no one so much as engages him in debate. Even in the family-run military business, it's just not the way the chain of command works. "Whenever Haji [an honorific used for a Muslim who's made the pilgrimage to Mecca] is sitting in at a family meeting, no one else will speak," says younger brother Kamal Khan Zadran, leader of the local troops in Khost that work with US-led forces. "When he sits, no one speaks without being asked first. The only one he's not strict with is his wife," he says.
Filial loyalty is a card Khan plays well. He promotes himself as the guardian of the "real Pashtuns" a dig at the educated and more cosmopolitan Pashtuns like Karzai. But inside the Pashtun ethnic group, which makes up about 40 percent of the country, tribes have rarely been united.
The Zadrans are the largest tribe in southeastern Afghanistan important enough that last December Karzai appointed one of Khan's younger brothers, Amanullah Zadran, as his minister of borders and tribal affairs.
But Karzai also tried to sap Badsha Khan's overambitious power grabs by appointing Abdel Hakim Taniwal of the rival Tani tribe as governor in Khost. The two men surround their compounds with their closest relatives and do not recognize each other's authority.
In a part of the country where Pashtun tribal ties override everything from political ideology to Islam, Badsha Khan says he has thousands of supporters in three provinces and beyond firmly on his side. That is far more, he says, than the loyalty that Karzai will ever claim. "He is not a Pashtun. OK, he is, but he does not take care of the real Pashtuns," says Badsha Khan, who gives straightforward, confident answers in a gravely voice that emanates from a huge chest, bejeweled by an ammunition belt. "I am higher than him, because I have fought Al Qaeda. I am the one who helped the US forces."
Indeed, Badsha Khan was the first of the original mujahideen leaders to storm back into southeastern Afghanistan when the Taliban showed signs of buckling under US airstrikes last fall; he had waited out the last years of the war in Pakistan. Though the Taliban were also Pashtuns, they are far more fundamentalist, come from another area, and most important, are not of his tribe. He lent both men and information to the US-led forces to help sweep up Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in return for funds and training. He then blamed the US for letting them get away because the US didn't act on his information quickly enough.
American officials have been subtly backing away from that partnership. But pulling out the plug completely may only confirm the feeling among many here that the US abandons its allies when they are no longer needed, just as Washington lost interest in the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal.
Badsha Khan feels entitled to run the troublesome swath of the country where his branch of the Zadran tribe, the Dary Khel, predominate. The many tribal chiefs who pay homage to his power agree, and together warn they may stage a boycott of the loya jirga to protest Tajik predominance at the expense of the Pashtuns.
One of the trickiest things about power derived from primacy in a large tribe, though, is that there is often competition from other tribes or subtribes. The most important rival for Badsha Khan is Ibrahim Haqqani, who is now a military commander for Paktia Province. He is also a Zadran and enjoys great support from the central government in Kabul. And the name Haqqani his brother is Jalal Ud Din Haqqani, the Taliban's commander for southeastern Afghanistan still commands support from some of the area's more radical fundamentalists.
Though tribal fealty is paramount, some here gripe privately about wanting a better future and the need to rebuild goals that may be tough to achieve with an aging, unschooled warlord who wants to rule three provinces both as if by divine right and because he has the most guns.
Savvier members of his family pay lip-service to the idea of melding all of the country's tribal militias into one national army. But in reality, anything that smacks of taking away Badsha Khan's power for the good of the nation is attacked as the wicked work of the Northern Alliance. Unlikely to share power, he has decided to buck the system and could be a fly in the ointment this week. If he shows up in Kabul, some analysts say, he could be arrested. If he stays away, other Zadran may sit out too, in effect staging a boycott.
The Badsha Khan clan are royalists and have long campaigned for King Zahir Shah's return, which the former monarch cannot ignore. And although the electoral show will probably go on without him, Badsha Khan's strength and bluster could contribute to instability in a part of Afghanistan that straddles the tribal areas of Pakistan potentially the most important new front in the US war on terror.
KABUL - Behind the gates of the presidential palace here, guarded by fierce-eyed and poorly dressed Northern Alliance soldiers and a team of American commandos, is the most unusual man to ever rule Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai owes his position not to money, although he is personally well off. He is not a man of weapons, a scholar of the Koran, or an elder of a particular tribe. He owes his job as chairman of the Afghan interim government to the power of a single idea the loya jirga, or supreme council that allows Afghans to decide their own future government.
Most observers expect he will retain his job as chairman when the delegates of the loya jirga gather in Kabul this week to choose their next government.
His popularity springs both from his unwillingness to cater to any one ethnic group. But most important, Mr. Karzai's success thus far springs from his ability to bring desperately needed dollars in international aid relief, in military and diplomatic support, and in secure promises from the US that this time, Afghanistan will not be left to rebuild itself on its own.
Cool and worldly, Karzai is a former employee of US oil company Unocal one of two main oil companies that was bidding for the lucrative contract to build an oil pipeline from Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to seaports in Pakistan and the son of a former Afghan parliament speaker. He has been the confident and earnest face of the Afghan people to the outside world, and the very antithesis of the wild-eyed warlord preaching jihad.
"I think the loya jirga is the best instrument for the further strengthening of the national notion of the Afghan state," says Karzai, dressed in his trademark gray shalwar kameez and black sport coat. "A lot of people are interested in the loya jirga. They want to do away with the gunmen and warlords and return to civilization."
A former deputy foreign minister during the first Afghan government after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime, Karzai finds his greatest source of support comes from the US and its coalition against terrorism. The well-educated Karzai also has established clout as a fundraiser in chief, a man who can travel to Germany, Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the US, and return with millions of dollars in promised aid.
"He is very stubborn about the Afghan nation; he would not budge an inch about Afghanistan," says Karzai's brother, Qayum Karzai, a Baltimore restaurateur and head of Afghans for a Civil Society. "We are quite fortunate to have him. If anyone has the ability to frame Afghanistan within the national scope, it is Hamid."
The crucial moment that shaped Karzai's politics, some friends say, was the point that jubilant Afghan militias failed to create an Afghan nation after the fall of Najibullah in 1992. "All of what happened in the early 1990s really affected everybody, especially Karzai," says Muhammad Omar Babrakzai, deputy minister for frontier and tribal affairs in the current Karzai administration. "As we see him now, he's determined to work for a broad-based government with no racial, ethnic, or tribal dimension. He wants people to be Afghans."
But some Afghans, particularly members of Karzai's own Pashtun ethnic group, say that Karzai's influence extends just to the outskirts of Kabul. Indeed, some say it barely reaches the mainly ethnic Tajik guards at his own gate. "Mr. Hamid Karzai is an educated, bright-minded man and a learned person, he's a mujahed and a holy warrior," says Amanullah Khan, minister for frontier and tribal affairs, who considers himself a friend of Karzai. "But the problem is the people he keeps around him, about 12 advisers who are not as qualified as him."
Karzai's advisers, Mr. Khan says, are members of the Northern Alliance led by former President Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik. It was these men, he says, who advised Karzai to replace Khan's own brother, the warlord Badsha Khan, with another governor in the provincial capital of Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan.
"Hamid Karzai is the legitimate leader of Afghanistan for six months, and whatever he has to do to initiate agreement, he has to do," says Khan. "Otherwise, if he is misled, he will face the music which other leaders have faced over the last 23 years."
Whether all this talk is the usual grumbling found in any democracy or the opening salvo in yet another divisive struggle may be seen in the coming weeks and months. But Karzai says the country has already taken decisive steps away from its dreadful past. "The country is peaceful again, the refugees are returning in large numbers, and that is a very good sign," he says. "It's a beginning.... I think the foundation steps toward the participation of Afghans in their government is being laid."
What role each of these men will play in the new Afghanistan, after the loya jirga is held June 10 to 16, has yet to be seen. Dostum, Karzai, and Gailani have all committed to supporting the results of the loya jirga. Badsha Khan says he will boycott the loya jirga, and Ismail Khan, who hasn't been accepted by Kabul as Herat's governor, also remains an enigma.
Whatever the results of the loya jirga, it will be in the hands of men like these. They can make a new drive toward democracy, electing 111 representatives out of the 1,500 to constitute a legislative body. Or, they could reinstitute a constitutional monarchy. The possibilities are as wide open as the big Afghan sky that was once the only roof a jirga needed.