Carving a pathway for travelers and warriors alike, Afghanistan's crystalline Panjshir River has long been the guide through the mountainous northern provinces.
Today, many of the valley's lush fields are lined with rows of new Russian military tanks and rocket launchers. This new stockpile, along with most of the country's artillery reserves and a 50,000-strong militia, are under the thumb of the Afghan minister of defense, Mohammed Qasim Fahim.
As a top leader in the Northern Alliance - the primary military faction that joined with the US to oust the Taliban - Mr. Fahim is making no secret of the fact that he and his fellow ethnic Tajiks are not willing to be sidelined during the run-up to next year's elections. A power struggle between Fahim and President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, has Western diplomats and coalition commanders concerned. Any change in leadership is seen as an unwanted distraction from the process of nationbuilding and the war on terrorism.
Following the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood in September 2001, Fahim seized the leadership of the Northern Alliance and made a name for himself by assisting US-led forces in toppling the Taliban government in Kabul.
He has since risen to the top of the heap of this fragmented country. Many see Mr. Karzai, whose cabinet is made up mostly of Northern Alliance loyalists, in a weaker position than Fahim with his considerable military resources.
Sitting in an oversized chair detailed in gold in Kabul's heavily fortified Ministry of Defense, Fahim denies that the materiel and manpower tucked away in Panjshir - his home region and the Northern Alliance's former stronghold - is for his own personal use.
"As the minister of defense of Afghanistan, I can assure you that I don't have any private militias," Fahim told the Monitor in a rare interview. "Any weapons that I have belong to the ministry of defense and are just being stored in Panjshir for safekeeping."
But Fahim's forswearing of any private forces comes on the heals of a new Afghan government law banning warlords from taking part in the country's politics. Critics suggest that the force is Fahim's ace in the hole, a backup option easily activated for a march on Kabul if his political ambitions are thwarted.
Fahim says he is not considering running for president at this time nor has he endorsed anyone else.
"As soon as rumors arose that a presidential candidate was announced I held a press conference and cleared up the matter that no candidate were discussed. I made it clear that we will wait until the constitution is approved and then we will discuss presidential elections," he says, referring to reports last week claimed that Fahim and other political groups had met in Kabul while Karzai was out of the country to choose another presidential candidate.
Vikram Parekh, senior Afghanistan analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says Fahim will not run for president because his power base has narrowed immensely.
"The Northern Alliance is very fragmented now and there is a lot of resentment towards Fahim because he uses his powers as the minister of defense to maintain his own forces," Mr. Parekh says.
However, Fahim does have his eye on the prime minister's position, a role outlined in the draft of Afghanistan's new constitution. At this point, sources say, the prime minister will be appointed by the president and not by a parliament. The details of the prime minister's powers will be finalized during the constitutional loya jirga, or grand assembly, scheduled for late December.
"I see the president of Afghanistan as a symbolic figure that the people elect to oversee things, but the prime minister will be running the country," says Fahim. "I am very fond of a division of power."
But it's unclear if that's how Karzai and the drafters envision that position. Afghan Presidential spokesperson Jawed Ludin says Karzai will not discuss the contents of the draft of the constitution until it is released to the public in the next couple of weeks.
At no cost though, does Fahim want to give up his post as the minister of defense, which has been dominated by the Northern Alliance.
"Fahim is testing Karzai right now, he wants to see how much he can strong arm him," says Parekh.
But Karzai has been rushing to tilt the scales back to his side in an effort to boost his reelection campaign. Just last month he fired Fahim's army chief of staff and appointed four new deputy ministers.
The move was seen as an attempt to weaken Fahim's grip on the ministry of defense and send the message that the Karzai was no longer going to be pressured to include Fahim's people in his cabinet.
Although Mr. Fahim denies that he has a private militia he does admit that he has asked Karzai to include thousands of Tajik soldiers from Panjshir valley in the National Afghan Army and give them the same benefits.
"These soldiers are standing up to terrorism like the coalition forces. I asked Karzai to take my soldiers and pay them and make them part of the Afghan National Army. Why train new ones when we have a lot of soldiers, generals and commanders," says Fahim.
"They also need to be recognized, they need rights and paychecks and retirements. They should have these rights," he says. "Until the international troops are here, the former Afghan soldiers need to be taken care of as well."
But Karzai's people say that adding the 50,000 Tajik soldiers to the 7,000 Afghan National Army will encourage loyalty to Fahim and defeat the purpose of a multi-ethnic force. The dispatch of a heavily Tajik force to battle the resurgent Taliban in the Pashtun regions of the south and east would likely aggravate the local population.