By Nicole Ashford
On 8 September, 15 people died in fighting in the Afghan city of Khost. Precisely why they died is not clear. We do know the fighting had to do with a dispute involving a local warlord, Padshah Khan Zadran. One report suggests he feels aggrieved that he did not receive sufficient credit for his role in bringing down the Taliban.
This is Afghanistan at peace.
Three days earlier, President Hamid Karzai survived an assassination attempt by a margin of six inches. There are suggestions that the attack was masterminded by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Prime Minister whose forces are reported to include al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Two of Karzai's ministers have been assassinated already: Afghanistan's vice-president, Haji Abdul Qadir, was killed on 6 July.
The United Nations says insecurity remains a major concern, threatening to undermine the peace process and the transitional government. Many think it is only a matter of time before an assassin succeeds in killing Karzai - and the more he is forced to rely on US special forces to protect him, the more his authority in Afghanistan becomes suspect.
There are 5,000 international peacekeepers in Kabul - led for the moment by the Turkish contingent, which began its six-month tour in June. No country has yet offered to take over the Turkish mandate when it expires in December.
Outside Kabul, there are no peacekeepers. And there is no peace. Some US military leaders, even in the Pentagon, are beginning to ask whether the UN mandate should be extended beyond Kabul - although a recent State Department report seems to have pushed that possibility back.
Now that the triumphalism has faded a little, the US is beginning to realise it has a problem, one which the near-death of Karzai rather unpleasantly clarified. The Afghan President is the only factor, for the moment, holding the country more or less together. He's a member of the majority Pashtun ethnic group, he fought the Soviet occupation, but he lived in exile for much of the '90s and consequently has no blood on his hands from the devastating wars of that period. He is acceptable to the major warlords of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, and to the West. Without Karzai, the US plan, such as it is, looks even shakier than before.
Yet already it seems that some in Afghanistan feel Karzai is too close to the US, too much Bush's puppet. Not that he has a lot of choice. He needs US money if any part of the country is to be rebuilt. He needs US special forces, it seems, if he is to survive the inevitable assassination attempts in the future.
Karzai has been trying to pacify his critics. He made a very public pilgrimage to the tomb of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. But to some extent this signals his reliance on the Northern Alliance, which controls the majority of ministries in his government and, on the ground, with its army, holds power. The West is supposedly helping to train a new Afghan national army, but it's a long process: even the most optimistic say the army will not be able to operate effectively before 2004, and breaking the grip of the warlords will not be an easy task.
None of the prospects for Afghanistan now are good for democrats or socialists. If Karzai can hold together his government, then the country may stumble along for a while longer yet. That will be more likely if the West delivers on its promises of aid and development money. If the government begins to fracture, though, and if local conflicts between warlords intensify, there is the prospect once again of chaos and war in Afghanistan.
There is, of course, another possibility: that the West decides it cannot tolerate such chaos, and long-term 'peacekeeping' - in effect, occupation - ensues. That is not a possibility that many in the US want to entertain. They want to move on to Iraq. But if the alternative is a Taliban Mark II, they might yet change their minds.