With his bandoleer draped across his chest and a silver and black turban wound onto his head, Badsha Khan still looks like a model Afghan warlord.
But the once powerful regional governor and a crucial US ally in the war on terrorism has been cast aside since voicing his opposition to the central government of President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Khan now has a mere 500 troops and is treated as a national security threat.
Khost's current governor, Hakim Tanewal, has called for immediate military action against Khan, and US forces have arrested a number of Khan's subcommanders and family members to prevent them from mounting any further attacks against the central government.
The fall of Khan - and the possible alienation of his entire tribe, the Zadrans - mark a small but important milestone for the Karzai government. It's the first step in returning power to the hands of civilian rulers.
"[Mr. Karzai] has launched a serious campaign to challenge the warlords," says Ahmed Rashid, author of the book, "Taliban," and a 20-year political observer of Afghanistan. "He's ordered that no warlord can be military leader and governor of the same province and he's thrown out 29 people from the establishment. All this points to the fact that he's moving toward amassing great power for the central government."
Meanwhile, for Khan, abandonment has become a vexing personal betrayal, and Afghan officials privately fret that the one-time foe of Al Qaeda could switch sides and fight against both the Afghan government and US forces.
"My feelings toward the US are the same as they were six months ago, but I'm sorry to say I don't know what America is doing in this country," says Khan, sitting on a floor-level cushion in a guesthouse on the outskirts of Khost. "Why don't they know who are their friends and who are their foes?"
But while casting aside Badsha Khan was relatively easy - the US simply stopped paying him for joint operations - the same move will be difficult in other parts of the country where warlords and powerbrokers are more deeply entrenched and where the central government has little manpower to assert its will. The problem with Karzai's plan, Mr. Rashid notes, is that the president has little power of his own to assert. The new Afghan National Army now has only seven battalions, each composed of about 500 freshly trained but poorly paid men, scattered across the country. This makes him reliant on US forces, which have largely stayed out of domestic political squabbles unless they pertain directly to eliminating Taliban or Al Qaeda holdouts.
In such a scenario, only weakened warlords can be shoved aside. Others, such as Herat warlord Ismail Khan, Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, Balkh warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum, or even Northern Alliance commander and now Defense Minister General Fahim - who have alternative sources of income - will continue to maintain personal private armies and the ability to assert their personal wills over local politics.
In a crucial province like Khost, where a few thousand US troops are based to take on Taliban holdouts, US military sources privately say the eccentric politics of Khan, an illiterate landowner but charismatic tribal elder, lost their charm long ago. Of special concern were a number of incidents that inflamed local opinion against US forces.
First, in December 2001, Khan's men alerted US troops of a concentration of some 40 Al Qaeda fighters just north of Khost city. US warplanes bombed the fighters, but found out later the site had been a mosque where non-Al Qaeda locals were at prayer. Later that same month, a tip from Khan's commanders urged US planes to bomb a caravan of supposed Al Qaeda trucks in Paktia Province. The caravan turned out to be full of Afghan tribal leaders - Khan's rivals heading to Kabul to show support for the Karzai interim government.
Then in April 2002, Khan mounted an offensive on the city of Gardez, where a newly appointed regional governor, Taj Mohammad Wardak, had assumed control of the governor's palace of Paktia Province. The attack was a debacle, with dozens of Khan's fighters killed, and hundreds more taken prisoners.
The final straw came last June, after a nationwide grand council selected Karzai to head the transitional government. Khan, a committed supporter of former Afghan King Zahir Shah and foe of Persian-speaking ethnic minorities of the north, announced that he could never support Karzai as president.
"In our culture, it is very bad to revolt against the central government unless they are non-Muslims," says Khan, sipping a glass of sugary green tea. "But a person like Karzai, he is not a president, he is just like a puppet for the Northern Alliance. Outside the palace, he doesn't even control the traffic."
Khan says he has no intention of fighting against the central government and would certainly never join his former enemies, Al Qaeda. But he worries that members of his Zadran tribe might revolt against the new provincial government and take revenge against US troops for the recent arrests of tribal subcommanders such as Sardar Khan and Janbaz Khan.
Without US support, Khan can't afford to pay his troops. Many serve the tribe out of loyalty, paying from their own savings for guns, food, and clothing. And some family members say they have no choice, culturally speaking, but to support the leader of their tribe, even if they do wish Khan was more flexible.
"Badsha Khan is a very stubborn man," mutters Mir Dost, a medical student and Zadran tribe member from Khost. "He said he will only support King Zahir Shah as president, and he is stuck to that position."
Zadran tribe members are now targeted in two countries, he adds. In Pakistan, Zadran family members are threatened by Taliban holdouts and their supporters, and Mr. Dost's family home was booby-trapped with land mines last month during Ramadan. Here in Afghanistan, family members are arrested as possible anti-Karzai activists. "We can't go anywhere," he says.
According to The New York Times, negotiations are under way between Khan and Karzai. For Khan himself, there is one solution short of war. He wants an international court to restore the promises of the Bonn conference of December 2001, which made Khan the regional governor of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika Provinces.
"With Karzai, whenever we demand our due rights from the central government, we are called warlords," he says, "but when we support the central government with closed eyes, we are honored tribal chiefs."