American and British forces are holding back an offensive on Kabul by the Northern Alliance while they seek to decide with regional players and other UN Security Council powers how the country will be run in future.
In their nightly air attacks, the US-led forces have avoided hitting Taliban forces on the plain north of Kabul, fearing that their elimination would give the Northern Alliance a "walkover". If the anti-Taliban grouping takes the capital before a political framework is in place, Afghanistan could be plunged back into the chaos of the early 1990s.
Nine years ago a mujahedin coalition made up of essentially the same groups as the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul following the collapse of the communist government, and immediately began fighting among themselves. The capital, which had escaped serious damage during the war against the Soviet invaders, was left in ruins and 50,000 people, nearly all civilians, were killed. Such was the anarchy that the newly created Taliban had little difficulty in capturing Kabul in 1996, to the initial relief of many of its inhabitants.
While the air attacks have further weakened the Taliban's ebbing support, Afghans retain bitter memories of the mujahedin commanders who tore the country apart between 1992 and 1996.
The West is also resented for having "walked away" from Afghanistan once the Russians had been driven out, leaving the United Nations as the only credible guarantor of a future administration.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's recently appointed chief envoy to Afghanistan, is due to report back to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, on Monday after talks in numerous capitals, including London. With international backing, he is seeking to enlist Afghanistan's deposed king, Zahir Shah, as a figurehead who could summon leaders to a traditional loya jirga, or grand assembly, to map out the future. Despite his age – 86 – and his 28-year exile in Rome, Zahir Shah has been endorsed with varying degrees of enthusiasm by almost every party to the conflict bar the Taliban, because the alternatives are so unappetising.
Yesterday Burhanuddin Rabbani, president of the former mujahedin government and still recognised as Afghanistan's legitimate leader by most countries, said the Northern Alliance remained the key to dislodging the Taliban. But its record aside, the alliance consists almost entirely of members of the Tajik and Uzbek minorities. It has virtually no base among the Pashtun, the largest and traditionally dominant group, from which the Taliban arose.
"The Northern Alliance alone cannot form a credible government," said a diplomatic source. "Neither can the exile groups." Any sustainable government would have to be multi-ethnic but with strong Pashtun support. Britain is among Security Council powers which believe an imminent split in the Taliban may make this possible.
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday: "At the core of the Taliban are groups of religious fanatics but around them are warlords who for convenience have tied themselves to the regime, some of whom are peeling away. I think some of the more thoughtful people in the regime will have recognised that they are facing... enormous hostility from the rest of the world."
There will be many claimants for the role of Pashtun champion, however, including Abdul Haq, almost the only effective Pashtun commander in the mujahedin war, who has returned from exile in Dubai and is canvassing support in Pakistan. The Taliban are suspected to have been behind a bomb attack on his house in 1999 which killed his wife and son.
Other warlords of the pre-Taliban era are surfacing, including the most loathed and feared of all, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was Pakistan's favourite before it backed the creation of the Taliban instead.
A Pashtun who scorns traditional tribal structures, Mr Hekmatyar bombarded Kabul for more than two years in an unsuccessful attempt to oust the Rabbani government. He was joined for a time by Abdul Rashid Dostam, the Uzbek commander famous for his propensity to switch sides whenever it seemed advantageous. After failing to seize Kabul, General Dostam retreated north to Mazar-i-Sharif, where he ran a mini-state which had its own airline but punished offenders by crushing them with tanks. The Taliban drove him out but he is mustering his Soviet-trained forces to take the city back.
Another warlord trying to make a comeback is Ismail Khan, the former governor of the eastern city of Herat, who escaped from a Taliban jail and is seeking help from his Shiite brethren in Iran to recapture his old fiefdom.Reuse content