The day before the loya jirga began here, President Bush's energetic special representative to Afghanistan dashed about town trying to reassure Afghans that the US government was firmly behind their fledgling democratic efforts.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a longtime US State Department official, addressed some of the 1,501 delegates. He told them that the US would support their efforts to establish a government of their own.
But even as Mr. Khalilzad spoke, a list of candidates conceived by the current interim government was circulating in the audience, fueling Afghan suspicions of US intentions. The slate would largely preserve the current balance of power, which many Pashtuns see as unfairly skewed toward the Tajik-led northerners, who occupy the key ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. Pashtuns Afghanistan's largest ethnic group say they are outraged by what they see as US pressure to conform to the basic outlines of the document. But backroom dealing including withdrawals of Tajik candidacies and pledges of political support have left the outcome of the loya jirga and the ethnic balance of the new Afghan government far from clear.
The view that the US may be key to shaping the loya jirga's outcome to the detriment of Pashtun interests does not bode well for US peacemaking efforts here, say observers. Eight months after the US military launched its massive air assault to wipe out Al Qaeda and its sponsor, the Taliban regime, perceptions of the US government are shifting.
Instead of viewing the United States as an impartial broker, many Afghans view it as a heavyweight political player with overriding interests in creating a new Afghanistan of its own liking.
"The loya jirga is a kind of watershed for the US role in Afghanistan," says Anthony Davis, an Afghanistan analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly who has reported on developments in the country for the past 22 years. "The danger for the US is that the Afghans will begin to see US political interests in everything that is being done. This, in turn, could jeopardize the US military presence here, particularly if the US is seen to be favoring one ethnic group over the other."
Observers here say US actions support the status quo of the current interim government. The administration consists of Hamid Karzai, the Western-oriented head of state, braced by an array of powerful Tajik ministers representing the Northern Alliance.
On the loya jirga's first day, Karzai told Reuters that the assembly had confirmed him as leader, despite the lack of any kind of floor vote.
US support for the Northern Alliance has chafed many Pashtuns, who say their ethnic group will be unfairly denied access to leadership positions in a post-loya jirga government.
In one case, Pashtuns openly expressed their anger with the US envoy; as Khalilzad concluded a talk with a group of Afghans on Monday, a group of Pashtuns in the back of the tent began chanting, "Out with the dog! Out with the dog!," according to several tribal leaders at the loya jirga.
The US representative then held an impromptu press conference at the US embassy meant to clarify the political interests of Zahir Shah, the former Afghan king.
Khalilzad explained that the former monarch hadn't meant to imply that he was standing as "a candidate" for leadership in Afghanistan, despite a statement made by the king on Monday to the contrary.
Only about one hour after the US official had clarified the king's interests for the world's press, several Tajik ministers and Mr. Karzai arrived at the king's residence to explain the same thing. An official quickly read out a statement for the octogenarian king, who was then led away by guards after waving to the crowd, but without speaking a word.
Amanullah Zadran, the country's powerful Pashtun minister for tribal and frontier affairs, says he and his fellow royalists had been told by the King that he is prepared to become the president if it is "the will of the people."
"Now we hear that the King does not want to be a candidate, and this appears to us to be interference," he says.
Even more crucial, however, for the balance of power in the new Afghanistan will be an egalitarian distribution of the country's three most powerful ministries, say observers. If Pashtun demands for power-sharing in the new government are not met, there could be military conflict across the country after the loya jirga, says Mr. Davis, the analyst for Jane's.
"Our key interest is that we get a power-sharing deal that involves the handover of either the ministry of interior or the ministry of defense," says Sher Badsha Zadran, a middle-aged Pashtun delegate from the Paktika Province in the southeastern part of the country. "We will vote on this issue and our voice will be heard. In the event that our voice is not listened to, we will do our talking with guns."
Mr. Zadran said his fellow Pashtun tribesmen were indeed tired of war but would not cave in and stop fighting for their rights. Others Pashtun delegates vowed Tuesday to camp out in their tents at the loya jirga for as long as it takes to win real power in Afghanistan.
Having a Pashtun head of state does little to quiet many Pashtun critics of the current government. In the view of his fellow Pashtuns interviewed in the east and south over the last two weeks, Karzai is still a "prisoner" of the Northern Alliance.
Mirza Ali, an Afghan who is also a US citizen formerly living in Virginia, charges that the Tajiks in the Northern Alliance want to monopolize power in Afghanistan. "But they don't deserve special treatment. They didn't get rid of Al Qaeda and the Taliban; it was the US B-52 bombers that did that," says the deputy minister for frontier and tribal affairs, whose mother is a Tajik. "The problem is that the US officials in this country are surrounded and hypnotized by the Northern Alliance," he says. "But if the US government thinks that one faction can rule Afghanistan, it should look at what happened to the Communists."