Last week, on May 1, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan, saying that the bulk of that country is now secure. But Afghanistan is still struggling to build its own postwar political and governmental structures. Afghanistan still has a long way to go to reach true political stability.
Hamid Karzai is the interim President of Afghanistan. But many Afghans refer to him as the "mayor of Kabul" because outside of Kabul, true power remains solidly in the hands of local tribal, ethnic, or political leaders.
When the Taleban government was toppled some 18 months ago, U.S. troops needed the help of local tribal leaders, or sardars, to track down Taleban and al-Qaida remnants. Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says the U.S. military looked to anybody with authority locally for help, even though that might have inadvertently undercut the fledgling central government.
"I think the tendency of the military at the time the fighting stopped was to deal with anyone who seemed capable of imposing order locally. And that tended to be these local sardars," she said. "It's been a somewhat difficult transition to trying to play a role that is also somewhat supportive of the central authority. I'm not sure they've got the balance exactly right. But certainly the U.S. military has become much more conscious of the importance of transportation, the importance of security on the roads and the importance of creating conditions in which Afghans themselves can work out the balance between local authorities and central ones."
Many people call these powerful regional figures, such as Ismail Khan in the west and Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, warlords who rule by fear and intimidation. Human rights groups have complained about rapes and extrajudicial killings by their private militias.
But Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan who now chairs the department of Near East Languages and Culture at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, argues that the warlords are really community leaders guarding local autonomy.
"What they are arguing for is some kind of guarantee for community self-governance by various communities within Afghanistan, and single federal or federated regime where a clear definition of the rights and responsibilities of the central government could be defined," he said.
Ed McWilliams, a former U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan, says Mr. Karzai is honest and well-meaning, but lacks the clout for a direct confrontation with the local powers.
"There's a sense that he's an honest man, as I say, something of an Afghan nationalist, not simply someone pursuing the interests of his own particular ethnic or tribal group," he said. "But he's not seen as a strong player. Unfortunately, the international community, and I would say particularly the United States, has failed to fulfill its commitments to security or to reconstruction assistance, which would have given him some strength within his own country."
According to Ms. Schaffer, Mr. Karzai will have no choice but to eventually cement some kind of power-sharing deal with the regional leaders.
"Governments in Kabul have always had to in effect negotiate their authority when you got out to other parts of the country," she explained. "The challenge before Karzai's government is to make his authority in Kabul relevant to the local government in different parts of the country. He's unlikely to be able to force his will without taking some account of the locally powerful people. But he needs to be in the act in a more dynamic way than he's been so far."
Be they warlords or community leaders, they will have a powerful say when a Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, convenes in October to adopt a new constitution.