As Kabul awaits return of its exiled President, a nation's warlords reclaim their former fiefdoms

War on terrorism: Power struggle
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The Independent Online

The centre of diplomatic intrigue under every regime from the Communists to the Taliban, Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, was buzzing once again awaiting the arrival of the man still recognised by the international community as president of Afghanistan, the Islamic scholar Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The venerable and grey-headed Rabbani, however, did not arrive. According to members of his entourage in Tajikistan, his aircraft was not ready, but there is every likelihood that his triumphal return to Kabul was delayed by intense diplomatic pressure from the White House.

The US and Britain are desperately trying to prevent Mr Rabbani's Northern Alliance presenting the world with a fait accompli, but with his closest associates already in the capital and busily acquiring the trappings of power, it may already be too late.

James Dobbins, President Bush's newly-appointed ambassador to Afghanistan, hopes to reach Kabul today. The power vacuum left in the capital by the abrupt withdrawal of the Taliban is rapidly being filled, however, by Mr Rabbani's Jamiat Islami party. Three key ministries – interior, defence and foreign – have been occupied by senior figures in the Northern Alliance, guarded by the 3,000-strong "police force" it sent into the city on Tuesday.

Posters of Mr Rabbani are beginning to appear in the streets, and by the time international efforts to set up a broad-based government of national unity get under way, it may prove difficult to oust the group already in possession of the capital.

US-led coalition forces are still preoccupied with events further south, where their principal quarries – the Taliban and its al-Qa'ida allies, led by Osama bin Laden – are attempting to regroup and carry on the fight, either in their former stronghold of Kandahar or in mountains north of the city.

At the weekend President Bush said the Northern Alliance had promised to stay out of Kabul; within 48 hours that promise had been broken. Even though the alliance's main force remains on the outskirts, all the men supposedly policing the capital are Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley who revere the memory of their commander, Ahmed Shah Masood, who was killed in a suicide bombing two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The de facto government establishing itself in Kabul still insists that it is acting in a caretaker capacity, but that is another promise that may be forgotten in the euphoria of Mr Rabbani's eventual arrival. A former professor of theology, he became president in 1992, when Masood, his military commander, won the race to the capital following the collapse of the Communist regime.

Kabul's citizens have every reason to fear that the events of 1992 are about to repeat themselves. Then, too, there was talk of rival claimants holding back until an interim government could be sorted out, but almost immediately they began fighting among themselves, destroying a city which had remained virtually untouched through more than decade of war.

Then as now, the Northern Alliance is a marriage of convenience among mutually mistrustful commanders whose suspicion of each other is kept in check only by the need to remain united against the southern Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group, and its traditional supporters in Pakistan.

Even when the Taliban drove the northerners out of the city in 1996 and chased them almost to the Tajikistan border, leaving them in control of no more than five per cent of Afghanistan, the world continued to recognise Mr Rabbani as president. He has held the Afghan seat at the United Nations throughout.

The international community hopes Zahir Shah, the 87-year-old former king, who is still regarded as a symbol of more peaceful times by many Afghans, will preside as a figurehead over a conference to settle the country's future.

Yusuf Nuristani, a spokesman for the king, quoted him as saying in a message expected to be broadcast today: "I offer myself to serve the nation wholeheartedly to restore peace and security."

The king, he said, would also call on his people to, "stop bloodshed and be united and work on establishing a democratic government."

With Kabul in his hands, however, Mr Rabbani has already said that while Zahir Shah was welcome to return to Afghanistan, he could do so only as a private citizen, not as king. He has also ruled out any participation by "moderate" elements of the Taliban, an idea espoused by Pakistan and the US, in any future Afghan government.

Washington and London's dilemma is worsened by the absence of a credible leader of the Pashtun in which the Taliban has its roots.

Abdul Haq, a legendary former mujahedin commander in the war against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, was captured and executed by the Taliban when he returned to the country in an attempt to stir up a Pashtun rebellion.

Washington's favoured candidate, Hamid Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister who comes from the same Pashtun clan as Zahir Shah, is attempting to lead resistance to the Taliban in Uruzgan province, south-west of Kabul, but had a narrow escape earlier this month when he was ambushed by Taliban forces.

There were reports yesterday that Mr Karzai was heading for Kandahar, and might have reached the city.

Also said to be approaching the Taliban's birthplace was Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Kandahar who was reported to have crossed the border from Pakistan at the head of a fighting force of about 1,000 men.

But while the endgame is played out in the south, Mr Rabbani and his associates are consolidating their hold on the capital.

A similar pattern of events is occurring in other areas seized by the Northern Alliance: all over Afghanistan, warlords are reclaiming their former fiefdoms, and may prove reluctant to yield power. Abdul Rashid Dostum is in charge of Mazar-i-Sharif, whose fall last Friday set off the breathtaking collapse of the Taliban. For two years in the late 1990s he used Mazar as the capital of a mini-state which had its own airline and trade relations with the West.

Ismail Khan, the former governor of the western city of Herat, is back in place; yesterday it emerged that control of the eastern city of Jalalabad is in the hands of Yunus Khalis, a Pashtun power-broker associated with the late Abdul Haq, and members of Mr Haq's family.

Even before the Taliban suddenly fell apart, there was concern that the US-led coalition's political efforts to construct a future government for Afghanistan were lagging far behind the military campaign. Now events on the ground have hopelessly outdistanced the diplomats, and the country is fragmenting along old ethnic and political faultlines.

When he arrives in Kabul, the posters of Mr Rabbani will tell Mr Dobbins that the international community has a great deal of catching up to do.