The tank battles that claimed nearly 60 lives up in Mazar-e Sharif last week were some of the fiercest since the fall of the Taliban two years ago.
Unlike most recent fights in Afghanistan, this one did not take place between Afghan forces and the resurgent Taliban, but between the armies of two warlords who in theory both owe allegiance to the Afghan Defense Ministry, to the Northern Alliance, and to the US-led forces.
In practice, however, Gen. Rashid Dostum and Gen. Atta Mohammad are bitter rivals, and their personal enmity could end up destabilizing a region which has traditionally been a major engine of the Afghan economy. For diplomats and Afghan officials, it was just another sign that the country's effort to disarm warlords is moving too slowly, giving factional commanders the power to speed up or slow down the country's reconstruction at will.
"The lesson of this last week is that without a strong disarmament program, any political conflict or petty feud can be militarized very quickly," says Vikram Parekh, a Kabul-based security analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank based in Brussels. "The peace process in Mazar has failed because there hasn't been any good faith by the two sides, and there is nothing to compel the two sides to comply."
Afghanistan remains a land controlled by private armies, militias, and armed gangs, each with its own ethnic power base and ambition to get a piece of the national pie.
Efforts to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate militia fighters - numbered at 600,000 by the Defense Ministry - have been studied and planned, but have yet to actually begin. The reason is two fold: America still needs many of these armed groups to maintain security and fight Al Qaeda; and Afghanistan has yet to figure out how to reintegrate a generation of men who have known no other job than war.
It's a situation that could be at least as troublesome to US diplomats, military forces, and aid workers here as the resurgent Taliban itself.
"What we're trying to do is undo a part of this country's history that does not fit with today's nation-building goals," says Omar Samad, spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry. "But it has to be a gradual process. On one hand, we can't just let these people loose into society. On the other hand, we can't keep them in these military formations forever. Where do you start, and how do you keep from tilting the balance of power from one region to the other?"
"The people are tired of this fighting," says one senior Interior Ministry official, who helped negotiate last week's cease-fire. "They said, 'We want disarmament. What is the use of these two corps if all they do is fight each other?'"
Excuses for the slow process of disarming Afghanistan - known as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR - are as numerous as the various tribal, ethnic, and private militias themselves. First, the process of recruiting and training a new Afghan National Army is painfully slow. Only about 5,300 of the needed 70,000 troops have been trained, and with salaries as low as $50 a month, desertions are rampant.
Second, there is no mechanism for punishing those commanders who fail to disarm their troops - the only peacekeepers in Afghanistan number just 5,500, and they are restricted to Kabul.
But most important, the political situation is still so unstable between all the rival ethnic groups and ambitious individuals that it is virtually impossible to convince all the various factions to put down their arms at the same time.
"By demobilizing these militias, you don't want to create a vacuum," says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan. But in the meantime, the process of DDR should not be so slow that it allows militias to hang on forever, he adds.
Last month, the last major roadblock to disarmament was removed when President Hamid Karzai announced a massive shakeup within the top echelons of the Ministry of Defense. Twenty senior leaders in the ministry, all members of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance militia, were removed in favor of a broader mix of professional military men who reflect the ethnic mix of Afghanistan. Non-Tajik commanders had been reluctant to disarm with the Northern Alliance dominating the Defense Ministry.
President Karzai seemed to have new leverage with the Defense Ministry, as the Japanese government withheld nearly $41 million in aid until the reforms were completed. But even so, the two top ministers, Mohammad Fahim and his deputy, Bismillah Khan, remain top leaders in the Northern Alliance.
With those reforms in hand, Karzai announced that the first phase of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration will start Oct. 24 in the relatively peaceful northern city of Kunduz. Under the Kunduz pilot program, 1,000 fighters selected by their own commanders will be disarmed and channeled to different jobs, such as policemen, civic officials, or common laborers, depending on their skills.
UN officials say that the first six pilot DDR cities will show to Afghan civilians that disarmament has begun.
"But 1,000 soldiers is not so large a number that certain factions will feel that they are being targeted," says one senior UN official. "That's the theory, anyway."
At the Ministry of Defense, where the portrait of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood adorns every wall, senior officials say that disarmament will soon make battles like the one last week in Mazar a thing of the past.
Already, a voluntary (and unmonitored) disarmament has occurred in parts of the north, says one Defense Ministry spokesman, with many of the fighters simply returning to their villages to return to their prewar lives.
Even so, it may take time for the violent undercurrents of Afghan history to subside.
"The fighting in Mazar has deep roots, this started back during the war against the Soviets between two mujahideen commanders," says Brigadier Meer Jan, spokesman for the Defense Ministry.
"You cannot undo all that in a day," he says.