The next chapter in the U.S. drive for peace in Afghanistan is about to open. American diplomats are returning to Kabul with the mission of keeping rival and sometimes brutal factions in check and promoting political compromise.  

It has worked so far. An interim government is due to be installed Dec. 22 with veteran U.S. diplomat James F. Dobbins keeping a watchful eye. "I expect setbacks and difficulties," Dobbins said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. "But," he quickly added, "they haven't emerged."   

Dobbins was in charge of arranging the formation of an interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribesman. Beginning next week, the envoy will be in charge of the U.S. mission -- and of trying to mute the rivalry of Afghan tribal groups.   

"It has come together quicker than I anticipated," Dobbins said. At the moment, rival factions are pulling together.   

This week he is in London, along with Pentagon officials, discussing the formation of a peacekeeping force with European security experts. The United States is prepared to transport the peacekeepers, but will not contribute troops to the operation, a senior U.S. official said Friday.   

At least three, and perhaps many more, potential spoilers could complicate and even derail U.S. hopes to move from leading coalition forces in Afghanistan to the equally difficult task of building a stable government.   

Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the largest opposition party, has been shut out of power. He remains a formidable offstage force.   

An ethnic Uzbek chieftain, Gen. Rashid Dostum, accused of allowing massacres and mass rapes, has been superseded by younger leaders -- so far. He has not vanished from the scene.   

Abdul Malik, another major Uzbek warlord, cannot be discounted, either.   

The next big step is the reopening by Monday of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after 12 years, initially as a liaison office.   
From there, a small group of American diplomats, protected by U.S. Marines, will try to keep a peaceful transfer of power from the Taliban militia on course.

Within a few weeks, their security is to be enhanced by an international peacekeeping force.   

The U.S. relief and reconstruction effort also could help keep a lid on lurking dissonance.   

Dobbins, a U.S. troubleshooter in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, with 30 years' experience in European diplomacy, will serve as the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan at least through the installation of the new government.    He then hopes to fade away — provided the operation goes smoothly— and be succeeded first by a deputy ambassador and then a full-time U.S. ambassador.

The last U.S. ambassador, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by Islamic militants in 1979. He died in the cross fire in a rescue attempt by Afghan security agents. The embassy functioned without an ambassador until it was shuttered in 1989.

"I think things are continuing to develop more positively than most of us would have expected," Dobbins said.

Still, some of Afghanistan's tribal leaders were unhappy with the distribution of power, and their grumbling could erupt into a big problem.The United Front coalition had to be talked out of taking control of Kabul as the Taliban faded. In its push for power, some elements in the coalition wanted control of more than 20 of the 30 departments in the interim government. They settled for 17.

In the weeks and months ahead, the coalition could apply new pressures, but Dobbins said the emergence of a younger generation of leaders is a hopeful sign. 

"Nobody is threatening to go to war or to pull out of the process," Dobbins said. "We have got assurances. So far, so good." 

The political process the United States will oversee starts with the interim government. An emergency assembly is to meet in six months and decide on a provisional government and begin writing a constitution.

Two years later, another assembly, a tribal council called a loya jirga, will adopt a constitution and Afghanistan will become a fully developed state —if all goes well.   

Kabul is calm right now. But in Kandahar, men with rifles roam the grounds of the governor's mansion. The triumphant fighters patrolling the city are not disciplined.

Afghanistan has known civil war and strife for years.

Can the new era of good feelings that produced an interim government persist?

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, is cautiously optimistic.

"I think these parties have all made a political calculation to understand the way Afghanistan has suffered for the last 20-some years." he said.

"Afghanistan has never enjoyed the kind of stability that it deserves. It's never enjoyed the kind of peaceful development that its people deserve," Boucher said. "The parties, having experienced that, we hope will realize that the only real way to achieve that is to work together now for all of Afghanistan."