The United States and its allies were desperately struggling to keep a grip on events in Afghanistan as the opposition Northern Alliance swept ahead from Kabul with no international peace-keeping force ready to move in, and no agreement on a broad-based government to succeed the reeling Taliban.
Stunned by the speed of military developments on the ground, world leaders in Washington, London, Islamabad, and New York were scrambling to set up a force under the aegis of the United Nations to move into the capital and other Afghan cities "liberated" by the Alliance and to lay the foundations of a new government capable of bringing unity and stability to the country.
The UN said it would it would send political staff to Kabul immediately, and urged all Afghan factions to meet for a conference on the future of the country as soon as possible. Lakhtar Brahimi, the special UN envoy for Afghanistan, proposed a five-point plan for a transitional administration that might last for two years.
But before even that happens, order and peace must be guaranteed. This would probably require an ad-hoc multinational force under the aegis of the UN, diplomats said, rather than a peace-keeping operation directly run by the world body. These are laborious to set up and function best only when a political settlement is in place to be policed. "Without security, nothing is possible," Mr Brahimi told the Security Council.
Yesterday, Washington indicated that American troops would not be part of any UN force, which it says should be drawn predominantly – though not necessarily exclusively – from Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Turkey has already indicated its willingness, and Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf signalled that his country would be ready to contribute, after a meeting with Turkey's Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, in Istanbul.
Kabul should be a "demilitarised city", General Musharraf urged. The atrocities of the past must not be repeated, he said, referring to the bloodletting that accompanied previous captures of Kabul – by the Northern Alliance in 1992 and by Taliban four years later. But whether soldiers from Pakistan, opposed to the Northern Alliance's takeover of Kabul, would be acceptable is unclear. Last night, America and its allies were taking encouragement from Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance's foreign minister who – in his first appearance in Kabul since the city's fall – promised his grouping's "full commitment" to a broad-based government.
Mr Adullah explicitly invited the UN to establish a presence in Kabul. The capital should be a place for negotiations, "the Taliban excluded of course", he said.
But with events on the ground racing ahead, amid unconfirmed reports of mass defections by Taliban elements, the task of cobbling together a new government for the ravaged and splintered country remained as complicated as ever.
Efforts by the "six plus two" group, comprising Afghanistan's neighbours plus America and Russia, to create a framework have so far yielded scant tangible progress, as factional feuding continued.
Last night, the entourage of the exiled king Zahir Shah – seen as a key partner with the Alliance in the elaboration of a new Afghan government that might also include moderate Taliban elements – accused the Alliance of breaking its word over the capture of Kabul. "It is against the agreement they made with us," said a close aide, Abdul Sattar Sirat. "We did not expect that they would enter Kabul. We wanted Kabul to be demilitarised and that the Kabul government and administration should come under a political process."
So too did President Bush, who at the weekend explicitly asked the Alliance to stop short of the city, and who yesterday discussed Afghanistan's future with Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, at the White House. But Mr Abdullah said the Alliance had initially not intended to enter Kabul but "for security reasons" was left with no choice when the Taliban fled the city.
Mr Bush put a brave face on developments, proclaiming himself "very pleased" with the war's progress and the conciliatory language of Mr Abdullah. But in common with other Western powers, the White House is deeply alarmed by reports of looting and revenge killing accompanying the progress of the Alliance.
Mr Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, stressed how vital it was for all parties "to conduct themselves in a way that is consistent with human rights" – and that message had been conveyed to those concerned, he said. But even as America tried to broker a new government for Afghanistan, it was looking to the next phase of the military campaign, whose prime objective remains the destruction of the al-Qai'da terrorist network and the capture or killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden. "That is our goal," Mr Fleischer said.
The focus of the military drive now shifts southwards to the majority Pashtu parts of the country and the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. As it does so, the influence of the Northern Alliance, largely made up of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, will diminish.
Ideally, the process would be made painless by enough Taliban defections to secure the final demise of the regime. If that does not happen however, the United States would have little choice but to commit ground troops in far greater numbers, to finish the job which the air strikes and the Northern Alliance's successes have begun.Reuse content