The stunning gains made by the Northern Alliance in the past five days have given the West's war in Afghanistan some much-needed impetus.
Two weeks ago, senior Western diplomats in the region were bewailing the stalemate and saying that some striking successes were urgently needed before winter (and Ramadan) set in and the coalition's wobbles turned to outright disaffection.
Now, their prayers have been answered. The Allies have the triumphs they craved, and then some. But what comes next is the hard part.
The problems of stalemate have now become the far more complex and intractable problems of success: whose success, leading to what sort of a result on the ground? To put it in other words: how to travel from a string of Northern Alliance victories in their heartland to the destruction of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in the whole of the country, and then the return of a rehabilitated Afghanistan to the comity of nations?
The United Nations said yesterday that it wanted Afghan politicians to meet within days to start the process of building a post-Taliban, broad-based government.
The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said: "As things are moving very fast, we need to bring the political aspects in line with the military development on the ground."
Of the many daunting obstacles on the road to peace, the first one lies dead ahead of the Northern Alliance forces as they barrel down from Pol-e-Kumri: the capital, Kabul.
Afghan wisdom has it that he who controls Kabul controls the country. The universal faith in this dictum on the part of those feuding over Afghanistan's destiny is what has reduced a city, which only 20 years ago was cultured, beautiful and in some respects modern, to a patchwork of blasted ruins, among which the half-starved remnants of the population squat and survive any way they can.
Kabul and the ownership of Kabul mean too much for Afghans: they cannot be expected to yield it lightly. That is why the current debate over the city's immediate fate has an air of complete unreality.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell called for it to be an "open city" until an interim regime was installed. "There would probably be a lot of tension ... if the Northern Alliance were to come in force with a population of Kabul that may not at the moment be friendly to them," he said.
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister of the Northern Alliance, has repeatedly denied that his force wishes to take over the city, saying that they only intend to send in a police force to keep order. But he also dismisses Powell's misgivings about what would happen if the Northern Alliance did in fact go in. "We were the target of misinformation and disinformation by the Pakistani propaganda machine," he said.
And he left his army a gaping get-out clause. Ideally they would stay outside the city, "but if there is a political vacuum," he said, "then it is a different situation."
The facts are as follows: the Taliban have by no means given up Kabul. In Kabul, as in the northern provinces they have lost, they are foreigners, their core leadership being from the south; their rustic puritanism clashes harshly with the educated, liberal urbanity that was the culture of Kabul before they arrived. But because of the capital's symbolic importance, they cannot be expected to yield it without an awesome struggle.
An estimated 6,000 Taliban fighters are dug in to solid defensive positions in the hills 50km north of the city. Another 20,000 are in defensive positions between Kabul and Jalalabad to the east. Compare those numbers with the 5,000 Taliban spread across the provinces that the Northern Alliance has captured, and one gets some idea of the scale of the battle that is likely to take place within days for possession of the capital city.
Suppose, however, that the western coalition's dreams come true and the Taliban abandon Kabul in much the same way they seem to have abandoned Mazar-i-Sharif, almost without a fight. If that happens, the problems will only just be beginning.
America has said it does not want the Northern Alliance to enter Kabul, and Dr Abdullah has agreed – up to a point. But the US is attempting to lay down the law in Afghanistan from 20,000 feet up in the sky. Lip service is the best sort of obedience they can hope for.
The Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, whose forces are converging on Kabul, are not a cohesive force, nor are they under a single command. Dr Abdullah's forces, formerly commanded by Ahmed Shah Masood, are backed by Tajikistan, while Abdul Rashid Dostum's are backed by Uzbekistan. Ismail Khan's forces are racing in from Herat with backing from Iran.
Dostum is an atheist who has switched allegiances numerous times; the forces backed by Tajikistan are mostly Sunni. Khan's are mostly Shi'ite. If the Taliban were to bolt from Kabul, the political vacuum cited by Abdullah would have come to pass – and would suck in as ruler whoever was first and fastest on the scene, followed helter-skelter by the rest.
The US, 20,000 feet up, will bark orders to no avail. The spectre of 1992 will return to haunt this tragic city as, once again, the proxy forces of Afghanistan's neighbouring countries, their flimsy facade of unity smashed, cudgel the city into ever smaller fragments as they fight for dominance. Last time round, more than 50,000 civilians died.
And all that is to figure without the involvement of Pakistan. Of all the countries bordering landlocked Afghanistan, it is Pakistan whose concern about the country's political destiny is most pressing, because the common border, the "Durrand Line", has never been accepted by any Afghan government, and because there is a huge, volatile population of ethnic Pashtuns inside Pakistan.
Additionally, Pakistan needs a friendly regime in Kabul because the neighbouring country across its other border, India, is so chronically hostile.
That was why Pakistan became the midwife of the Taliban. Even with the destruction of the Taliban, Pakistan's need for a proxy force of Afghan Pashtuns to keep the northerners – backed by those perennial enemies, Russia and India – at bay, remains urgent.
Where Pakistan is going to find that Pashtun force is still a mystery but among the mujahedin milling about these days in Peshawar, many of them veterans of the war against the Soviets, swilling down green tea on their commanders' lawns, talking at great length in low voices, a thrusting and ambitious leader will emerge, and the weaker the Taliban become the more certain that is. The iron rules of the Great Game, the demands of Afghanistan's northern and western neighbours battling it out, will remain unchanged.
And lasting peace for Afghanistan will look as remote as it did on 11 September.Reuse content