In the fraught autumn of 2001, George Bush convened a meeting of his war cabinet in the White House. It was less than a month after the 11 September bombings and Mr Bush was still planning America's response. There would be an attack on the Taliban and al-Qa'ida; Afghanistan would be invaded, but nobody yet knew precisely what form the military offensive would take. Here is the scene in the White House as described by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. It is worth reprinting because it tells us a great deal about a real crisis at the heart of the administration. The extract opens with General Richard Myers, Mr Bush's military chief, describing the plan of battle.
"Within days of the initial bombing, ground operations by the Special Operations Forces would be possible. As for post-Taliban Afghanistan, Wolfowitz [Paul, Deputy Defence Secretary] and Rice [Condoleezza, National Security Adviser] talked about getting other countries to put up money for rebuilding. 'Who will run the country?' Bush asked. We should have addressed that, Rice thought. Her most awful moments were when the President thought of something that the principals, particularly she, should have anticipated. No one had a real answer, but Rice was beginning to understand that that was the critical question. Where were they headed?"
Where were they headed indeed. Leave out the interesting assumption that Rice should be able to anticipate every thought in the mind of George W Bush and concentrate instead on the so-called "critical question". Ms Rice was 100 per cent correct. If you got rid of the Taliban, it pre-supposed that there was going to be someone better lined up to replace them. Well at least someone not nearly as bad. But after decades of violence and treachery, the existing Afghan political scene was a gallery of grotesques. From one region to another, venal warlords were jockeying for position.
The problem of the war was solved by air strikes and wads of greenbacks. The CIA bought off most of the lesser warlords and financed the advance of the Northern Alliance on Kabul. Those Taliban who were not killed defected or took to the mountains alongside Pakistan, where they remain, an irritating security problem but not an incipient Viet Cong, not yet at least.
The answer to the question posed by George Bush - who will run Afghanistan? - was meant to be supplied by an honest man named Hamid Karzai. To the White House and State Department, Mr Karzai broke all the rules of the Afghan Warlord Club. He was not a bandit, he did not encourage his men to rape and pillage, and when he made a deal he stuck to it. To the immense relief of the Americans, he even spoke about democracy as if he really meant it, as if the word was something more than a contractual obligation to be ditched at the first opportunity.
Now, nearly two years after the fall of the Taliban, Mr Karzai is still alive. This has surprised a great many Afghans and international observers.But while Mr Karzai represents for many an ideal of leadership, his writ is still pathetically limited. So what if he makes an honest deal. In Afghanistan what counts is the power to deliver your side of the bargain. The country beyond Kabul has reverted to the control of local warlords. They police by fear. So the best Mr Karzai can do is represent a hope of stability and a symbol of what is possible - leadership not beholden to tribal allegiance.
Alas, much of the country has returned to its traditional state: there has never been much respect for the idea of a powerful centralised authority in Afghanistan. That wouldn't be a problem if the people running the regions were democratic federalists. But when they are people like, for example, Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, we are back in very dangerous territory. The heroin trade starts to thrive again and smuggling is booming and Afghanistan is in danger of becoming an eastern version of one of those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Once Upon A Time In Kabul, with Mr Karzai as the good sheriff staring out into the falling shadows.
I worry about what the powerful Defence Minister, Mohammed Fahim, thinks about his president. He took the opportunity last year to "clear the air" about rumours of a bitter rift between himself and the president. Mr Fahim said that western media reports that described an "explosive atmosphere" were totally wrong.
Mr Fahim is the military leader of the Northern Alliance. The Alliance draws its support primarily from the Tajiks of the Panjshir Valley. Fahim took over the leadership after Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated by suicide bombers. Before becoming a guerrilla leader, Mr Fahim was a secret policeman, an employee of the notorious Khad, which conducted torture and killing on behalf of the Soviet-backed regime of the 1980s. It is possible that he learnt many of his ideas about power during that apprenticeship in Kabul.
Afghan journalists who have been brave enough to criticise him could testify to the unpleasant nature of some of Mr Fahim's friends. As Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year, errant reporters have been visited and intimidated by security officials. Then we have the statement this week from Miloon Kathari, a senior UN official, accusing Mr Fahim of forcing impoverished families off land in Kabul in an "illegal land grab''. About 30 families had their homes demolished and many were beaten by the police, according to the UN.
Now Mr Karzai has pledged to act against those responsible for the land grabs in Kabul. His spokesman says that it will be "decisive action''. Does that mean powerful men like Mr Fahim will lose their jobs? On the current run of things, I would say there isn't a chance. Mr Karzai has no militia to enforce justice. He depends on Washington, which is preoccupied with Iraq. The US troops in Afghanistan are largely tasked with chasing the Taliban and remnants of al-Qa'ida. Which brings us back to the question posed by George W Bush two years ago: who will run Afghanistan?
This should not be read as a funeral oration for the new Afghanistan. I read a report about independence day celebrations in Kandahar in which girls marched proudly in the same procession as boys. The wire services quoted Abdul Majid, 65, as saying that "not since the time of King Zahir Shah have we seen this peace and happiness''. In parts of Afghanistan things are much, much better. But the country has been damned by cycles of meddling and then abandonment. The international community will achieve nothing, in fact we risk the return of some new kind of Taliban, unless we are prepared to devote more money, troops and political capital to Afghanistan.
Given the kind of terror which existed under the Taliban you might regard the intimidation of journalists, the brutalising of the poor, as relatively small stuff. Even the return of pillaging, grasping warlords in many areas cannot compare with the tyranny of Mullah Omar and his band of theocratic loonies. But the lesson of history is not remotely conditional. Without vastly increased involvement things can only get worse.
The writer is a BBC Special