Afghan faction leaders meeting in Bonn, Germany, signed an agreement Dec. 5 to form an interim coalition government. But only 24 hours later, Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum delivered a major blow to the agreement when he announced he would not cooperate with the administration.
Several other faction leaders have also expressed varying levels of dissatisfaction.
The new government can militarily suppress some of these groups while others can be bribed. However, it is clear that the process of forming an Afghan government, already difficult, has just gotten harder. A hobbled and ineffective interim government will have a difficult time persuading faction leaders and warlords to participate in further efforts to create a permanent governing body.
As part of the Bonn deal, ethnic Pushtun Hamid Karzai will lead the six-month administration that takes office Dec. 22 and which will rule until a more permanent government is formed. But despite the fact that a Pushtun is taking the top spot, the deal is still a great success for a new generation of Northern Alliance representatives.
Three Tajik-affiliated leaders, all from the Panjshir Valley, took key posts. Younus Qanooni will be the new minister of defense, Abdullah Abullah (ethnically Pushtun but allied with the Tajiks) will be minister of foreign affairs and Gen. Mohammad Qasim Fahim will be the interior minister.
The three not only edged out ethnic Pushtuns for the positions, they also sidelined groups affiliated with the Northern Alliance, such as the Uzbeks and Hazaras, and even older Tajiks like former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Karzai may have been set up to take the fall if the government struggles while Qanooni, Abdullah and Fahim can escape the blame while still holding power.
The new ministers are reported to be much friendlier with Western contacts and more amenable to U.S.- and European-inspired plans for reconstructing the country. Many older Afghan leaders like Rabbani and Dostum experienced Washington's hands-off policy toward Afghanistan after the Soviets left and are more reluctant to trust foreigners again.
The most significant problem facing the interim government is the power of the factions that are dissatisfied with, or who oppose, the new setup. The government will have direct connections with foreign governments and a large flow of aid money. But the opposition will control a fair amount of territory and a great many weapons.
Dostum's opposition is the largest threat so far. Angry that his faction received only the ministries of agriculture, mining and industry, Dostum pulled out of the agreement Dec. 6. The leader controls a swath of territory around Mazar-e-Sharif and thousands of fighters. A major land route — vital for aid convoys and general trade — also runs right through his power base.
Rabbani is another concern. He has not voiced direct opposition to the new government but is known to be angry over not being given a seat. Rabbani has few fighters under his direct control but is close to a number of warlords.
Lurking in the background is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Iranian-backed warlord who accused the United States of imposing a deal on the Bonn conference. Hekmatyar commands his own fighters, though he has yet to move his troops into Afghanistan.
The Northern Alliance right now is at the peak of its power. It controls 70 percent of the country and is being supported by the U.S. military. The Tajik trio of Qanooni, Abdullah and Fahim is attempting to preserve that power as best it can. But the tide may be turning against them, and their position is in danger of eroding.
U.S. attention is turning away from northern Afghanistan and toward the eastern part of the country, where Osama bin Laden is supposedly holed up. This area is controlled by Ghilzai Pushtuns — U.S. allies from the Soviet war. Washington now needs the Ghilzai's more than the Northern Alliance, and will likely adjust its favor accordingly.
Rabbani for his part is likely angling for a better position in the future and will attempt to discredit and impede the interim government. He has two decades of political contacts that he can use to interfere with the government's dealings.
He can also use his connections with warlords behind the scenes to encourage military action that will make parts of the country even more unstable. By casting doubts about the ability of the new leadership he will raise his standing and prepare the way for a return to power.
Dostum, on the other hand, will likely just carve out his own sphere of influence in the Uzbek-dominated northern regions and will use his military strength to negotiate a large degree of political autonomy.
Nathan Brown is an analyst with STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.