While U.S. troops are mounting a major offensive against al-Qaida and Taleban forces in eastern Afghanistan, the interim government in Kabul strives for unity against resisting, well entrenched warlords.
If you have an enemy in Afghanistan, call him al-Qaida. That is what warlords are doing to get the best of their rivals and draw American attention as well. But it adds to the complications of pursuing genuine terrorists and bringing some order to Afghanistan.
Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives and author of a major study of the war, says various local commanders have pledged to cooperate with the national government and its army, but there is room for doubt.
"The underlying problem, which is that military power is diffused to local warlords, has not yet been addressed, and it will not be, unless and until there is a broader demilitarization or disarming of many of these militias. And there seems to be neither the power nor the inclination to proceed in this direction," Ms. Conetta said.
The United States is still focused on defeating al-Qaida and the Taleban and is now engaged in the fiercest fighting of the war. That leaves the central government of Hamid Karzai struggling with local commanders who have been armed and financed by the United States.
How to deal with them is a crucial question. Mr. Conetta says even troublesome ones must be brought into the government.
"Once they are in their regional seats of power, once they have been given a degree of military capability, to simply isolate them from the political process just sets them against the government. Including them at this point in the political process might be a step toward dampening the trouble they might make," he said.
Mr. Conetta says at least 30,000 peacekeeping troops will be needed to support the government.
And they may have to shoot, adds Marin Strmecki, director of programs at the Smith Richardson Foundation and a longtime analyst of Afghanistan. Some warlords will submit, he says. Others will not.
"There are some rooted in local tribal structures, who simply by virtue of the chaos assumed a military role. Those individuals could be integrated into national political life quite easily. There are other warlords who are motivated by avarice and the desire for personal power. The sad truth is that over time the only way to deal with that problem is to defeat those warlords on the field of battle by a national army," he said.
Mr. Strmecki is particularly concerned over the violence against Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan. In the past three months, Human Rights Watch has documented 150 incidents of murder, rape and looting by Tajiks, Uzbeks and others associated with the Northern Alliance.
"After almost every military advance of the Northern Alliance this past year, there were summary executions, other atrocities and often persecutions of Pashtuns that followed in the wake of those victories. If the pattern persists, it is almost inevitable that there will be a major backlash among the Pashtuns, who account for 40 or 45 per cent of the population of the country. And once that begins, the cycle of violence will be very hard to reverse," Mr. Strmecki said.
Mr. Strmecki says the approaching Loya Jirga, or grand council, is key to establishing a government of national unity, and he says the United States must make sure it represents all of Afghanistan, not just warlords who manage to hijack it.