ISLAMABAD – All roads lead to Rome. In Afghanistan, all roads lead to Kabul. This time, they also led to Rome. Hamid Karzai, the de facto Afghan interim prime minister for the next six months, starting on Saturday, went to Rome to get the blessing of former Afghan king Zahir Shah. The first British Royal Marines – leading a multinational, 16-country, 3,000-plus force – are already in Kabul. Afghanistan is finally, officially, back within the concert of nations after the social holocaust of Taliban theocracy.

But this is no Kosovo or East Timor. This is a much more complex operation. The six billion dollar question is inevitable – for Afghans and Pakistanis, for Russians and Chinese, for members of the European Union: what do the Americans really want?

Afghanistan is at present totally liberated from the Taliban – thanks to the precision and imprecision of American ballistic wrath. And the US are on the ground in force – inside the strategic Bagrum and Kandahar airports, inside the newly reopened American Embassy.

But the facts on the ground are also implacable. Not a single Taliban leader – Mullah Omar included – has been captured. They all have comfortably parked their turbans, for the moment, in Pakistani tribal areas – after buying their security from avid mujahideen commanders through the surrendering of territories. Only a few dozen minor, exhausted Al-Qaeda fighters – and a few dozen families – were captured in the Tora Bora caves. Osama bin Laden and his “thousands” (sic) of ferocious fighters theoretically escaped to the tribal areas, according to Eastern Alliance commanders in Jalalabad.

Reality is even more brutal – as Asia Times Online has already revealed. A bunch of Afghan commanders were rewarded with increased local prestige, cash and weapons by reassuring gullible Americans that bin Laden was still in Tora Bora, when in fact he may have escaped weeks ago to deserted Helmand province, and then to the Iranian part of tribal Baluchistan.

Without the capture of “The Sheik” bin Laden, or Al-Qaeda’s No 1, Ayman “The Surgeon” Al-Zawahiri, not to mention Mullah Omar, American “victory” is nothing less than bitter. And the consequences of this inconclusive “victory” are bound to affect the performance of the next Afghan interim government seriously.

This is a government as fragile as a premature baby. Hamid Karzai has repeatedly broadcasted his No 1 priorities: “peace and security.” He hails from one of the most traditional families of southern Afghanistan, which reigned over Kandahar for more than a century, with very close connections to the royal family. He knows all the major and minor players, he speaks Dari and Pashto fluently, not to mention English, and he considers himself to be most of all an Afghan. But he is up against some formidable “invisible” opposition.

Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum – essentially a dangerous gangster – will be working against him. And so will the recently destitute former United Nations-recognized president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, Tajik theology professor Barhanuddin Rabbani. Pir Syed Gillani, the Pashtun leader of the so-called Peshawar group, is also extremely unhappy with the Bonn arrangements. And Ismail Khan, the charismatic former and current governor of Persianized Herat, will not pay too much attention to a distant government in Kabul, where he has no representation.

Dostum and Rabbani, especially, will try to discredit or simply ignore moderate Pashtun and royalist Hamid Karzai’s set up. Sources related to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) insist that Karzai is nothing but an American-imposed figurehead. Anyway, not Karzai but the Northern Alliance will really be in control of this government: they are the hard and soft core of the Panjshir valley: Tajik “children.” Younous Qanooni, a Tajik, will be the minister of the interior. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a Pashtun by birth, will be the foreign minister. And General Fahim will be minister of defense. In the UN-sponsored Bonn conference, the trio had their say over the Pashtun ethnic majority, over the Hazara and Uzbek ethnic minorities, and also over old-guard Tajiks such as the disgruntled Rabbani – who afterward openly accused Qanooni of betrayal.

It won’t be exactly a popular government, but one has to remember that not a single Afghan government since the communists in 1978 had popular support. As far as Kabul is concerned, the only overwhelmingly popular solution is the return of former king Zahir Shah, but this will happen only in the first semester of 2002, when the king will be back to preside over a loya jirga, a grand council of about 1,500 Afghans who will choose a transitional 18-month government.

The new Afghan interim setup will deal directly with a plethora of concerned foreign governments, and also with hundreds of millions of dollars bound to flow into the country as humanitarian aid. Those opposed to Karzai’s government may not have direct access to the goodies, but some will control large amounts of territory and loads of weapons.

Dostum’s case is the most worrying: he controls the vital supply route used by humanitarian convoys from Uzbekistan, and he is idolized by thousands of fanatic soldiers. Rabbani has very close relations with many warlords – including the devious Pashtun leader, Professor Sayyaf. Behind these characters there’s the shade of an even more sinister warlord: radical Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, still exiled in Iran, and still bitterly accusing the US of imposing an agreement in Bonn. For many in Pakistan, the accusation is more plausible than it seems. Hekmatyar holds the dubious record of being the only prime minister in history to have bombed his own capital with rockets, during the chaotic mujahideen wars of 1992-96.

The fact remains that the Northern Alliance – a mixed cauldron of warlords, opportunists, gangsters and drug traffickers – could never have imagined itself in such a powerful position, and is backed, so far, by American military might. But the eventual success of Hamid Karzai’s government will depend on an array of very crucial factors. Afghan warlords will have to decide whether their priority is revenge or reconciliation. If the atavistic Afghan tribal instinct of solving any problem with a Kalashnikov remains, the country will never leave the black void.

The overall national and international focus must be humanitarian: 5 million refugees, about 7 million displaced people in the country, and at least 150,000 children on the verge of dying because of malnutrition.

The Afghan warlords – for the first time in history – will have to overcome their personal rivalries and work for a common cause: peace and development. But even their best intentions will not be enough if neighboring countries continue to play the same destructive game of positioning themselves in Afghanistan for their own geopolitical gains. It’s no secret that a few influential sectors of the Pakistani ISI told the Taliban not only not to fight, but also to retreat in the next few months, reorganize in the tribal areas, and come back in a not too distant future as a Pashtun force.

There’s only one major difference in relation to the tragic past. The US is apparently committed to contributing major political, military and financial help. The marines are in the airports. The diplomats are in Kabul. Multilateral financial organizations are apparently ready. A few weeks ago in Kabul, Molloch Brown, Afghan administrator of the UN Development Program (UNDP), said that until the end of January the UNDP would have set the priorities and the total cost of the Afghan rebuilding effort, to be shared by the UN, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Brown said that he was “confident about donor potential,” and that he would do his best to “lock them into a multi-year plan.”

International cynics might say this is just business, because Washington would never be interested in a war-stricken and famine-driven wasteland in the first place. The fact is Afghanistan’s natural wealth and status as a conduit for the pipelines transporting the riches of Central Asia are essential parts of the US$5 trillion oil and gas business of the New Great Game. Pakistan also has much to gain from the $2 billion gas pipeline to be built from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, not to mention the boost to its indigenous industries, such as logistics, construction and food with new opportunities in its neighbor market.

Among all these uncertainties, though, only one thing is certain. “Pipelinestan” or not, hidden American agenda or not, hidden Pakistani agenda or not, the historic opportunity for Afghanistan to emerge from the black void is now. Or never.

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