Reports of murder, intimidation, and looting of ethnic Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan by militias comprised of rival ethnic groups are prompting renewed concerns about the country's future and calls for an expanded role for international peacekeepers. The fundamentalist Taleban that ruled Afghanistan until their defeat by U.S.-backed opposition forces, were primarily Pashtun - the country's largest ethnic group.
Mohammed Azim, 46, eeks out a living as a wheat farmer in a small Pashtun village, about 40 kilometers east of Mazar-e-Sharif in Baghlan province.
Through sheer determination, he has managed to keep himself and his family alive through more than two decades of war and three years of crippling drought. But what he faces now, he said, is becoming too much to bear.
He said dozens of well-armed Northern Alliance soldiers - comprised mostly of ethnic Uzbeks and Hazaras - have been coming to his village two-to-three times a month since late November, when the Taleban were driven from the area. When he and the other villagers see them approaching, they hide in the bushes. He said, if they are caught, the soldiers beat them with the barrels of their Kalishnikovs until they hand over money and food.
Mr. Azim points to a large hole in the wall of his mud-brick home where a door once stood. He said the soldiers took the door - as well as every windowpane in the house - when they came by several weeks ago. Mr. Azim said he is sure that once the soldiers find out he has spoken to Western journalists, they will come and beat him.
In the Chimtal district, near Mazar city in Balkh province, ethnic Pashtun shopkeeper, Ahkmed, has a similar story of intimidation and violence by armed ethnic militias.
He said, shortly after Taleban fighters abandoned the area in late November, truckloads of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras showed up at his village. Mr. Ahkmed and many others fled to neighboring towns. When they returned three months later, he said, every house had been looted. He believes some 20 people - who stayed behind to defend their homes - were killed.
Three ethnic factions - Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara - largely make up the Northern Alliance, which, with U.S. military help, defeated the ultra-fundamentalist Taleban in November.
Many Pashtuns in the north, like Mr. Azim, believe the various ethnic warlords who banded together to form the Northern Alliance are now encouraging their militias to seek revenge for atrocities the Taleban allegedly committed against Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras during the six years the Taleban ruled Afghanistan.
Mr. Azim said the soldiers always accuse him and the other villagers of supporting the Taleban. "But we have never been a part of the Taleban movement," he insists. "We are just farmers who want to be left alone."
Mohammed Azim and Ahkmed have not left their homes in northern Afghanistan. But many other Pashtuns are seeking sanctuary among their ethnic brethren in the south. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said as many as 40,000 Pashtuns trying to flee to southern Pakistan have been stranded on the border since February.
Some of those are refugees from the drought and the U.S. bombings in Kandahar last November. But UNHCR believes many are Pashtuns from the northern provinces of Baghlan, Balkh, Kunduz and Takhar, where the interim government in the capital, Kabul, has little or no authority over the local warlords.
UNHCR spokesman in Kabul Fernando del Mundo said the United Nations is working with the interim administration - which has called for an investigation of human rights abuses in Afghanistan - to try to ease the crisis.
"The Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, has called for the establishment of a commission that will look into these things, and also try to promote a dialogue between the ethnic minorities. We are sending staff, protection officers, who will try and monitor the situation there," Mr. del Mundo said.
Pashtuns in the north say what they really need are international peacekeepers to reign in the warlords and their private armies. They want an immediate expansion of the mandate of the 4,500-member international security force, which is currently deployed only in Kabul.
But many Western nations advocate building a national army, which will eventually be charged with disarming factional fighters. Peacekeepers have already trained 600 army recruits, and another 2,000 are to begin training under the U.S. military in May.
A Pashtun farmer in Balkh province said that may be a solution for the future, but it does nothing to help solve the problem now. The farmer - who does not want to be identified because of safety concerns - said he fears there is a good chance that other ethnic groups will try to exclude northern Pashtuns from participating in the Loya Jirga - a series of Afghan tribal meetings, which will lead to the selection of a new, transitional government in June. If they succeed, he said, Afghanistan may start to disintegrate again.
He said, "Right now, I'm remaining optimistic. But if they try to exclude us from the Loya Jirga, I guarantee that all Pashtuns will leave this place, and there will be major trouble ahead."