That theory is pure fancy, of course. But it does precisely describe the delicate state of Afghanistan's future. "Finding Osama would be a disaster for Afghanistan," says a senior Western political adviser in Kabul. "Karzai needs to keep the various commanders in check and consolidate the new government. And the only way to do that is to keep the Americans on for as long as possible." And while the arrival of U.S. troops has persuaded the warlords not to turn against one another just yet, Karzai has been unable to persuade Washington to maintain its military presence indefinitely. Wary of becoming embroiled in messy disputes between rival factions, President George W. Bush has expressly warned that Washington is not interested in any notion of "nation building." His military, already looking beyond Afghanistan at the next targets in the war on terror, is even more blunt. "We're here to kill and destroy al-Qaeda," says Sergeant Major Frank Grippe, a 10th Mountain Division ground commander, during Operation Anaconda. "It's that simple." General Tommy Franks, chief of Central Command, tells TIME: "Any evolution beyond that, in terms of support to the Afghan government, to the interim authority, will require a decision by our President, and we have not seen that decision made."
Karzai has one particularly good reason to bridle at Washington's refusal to help solve Afghanistan's woes: the U.S. has become a major part of the problem. By backing the Northern Alliance, Washington has empowered a group of warlords of minority Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek descent to rule over the Pashtuns—Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and the bedrock of Taliban support. And by rearming the warlords to hunt down al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the U.S. has also unwittingly helped fuel further conflict. According to U.N. special representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, "The war against terrorism creates its own problems. In particular, you have more arms. We're trying to face the problem of the old arms that were there, but while we're collecting arms there are more being distributed." One Karzai adviser ventures further: "The U.S. is creating mini armies around the country. If the rivalries continue between the warlords, we're looking at civil war in a few months' time."
In some areas, such fighting has already started. In the north around Mazar-i-Sharif, ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara warlord Mohammed Mohaqiq have used the hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders as an excuse for a pogrom against Pashtuns. Human Rights Watch has documented 150 separate cases of looting, rape and killing in the area that have sent thousands of Pashtuns fleeing south. There are also persistent accusations that Afghan commanders are calling in U.S. air strikes against rivals, not terrorists. Meanwhile in Kabul, local factions have begun turning their newly acquired firepower on one another. Last month saw two pitched gun battles at the gates of the presidential palace in Kabul—while Karzai was inside working—between different bands of the palace guards: Panshiris loyal to Defense Minister Mohamed Fahim and another group from Badakshan province allied to former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The latest confidential U.N. report on security, seen by TIME, concludes that a full-fledged "power struggle" is under way. "Those elements that have the most to lose from a stable and democratic order in Afghanistan have begun to react," U.N. undersecretary for political affairs Kieran Prendergast says. Moreover, in the run-up to the June 22 loya jirga, or grand meeting of all Afghanistan's regional elders, which will decide who succeeds Karzai's administration, tension is only expected to increase. Against the warlords, the frail 87-year-old former King Mohammed Zahir Shah is not anticipated to prove the instrument of peace his supporters hope.
Washington is hardly unaware of the potential for civil war. The CIA has warned of the possibility, and General Franks cites a revealing anecdote from the day Karzai was inaugurated as interim government chairman last December: "One of the opposition group leaders, with whom we had worked earlier in the fight, walked up to me from across the room, hugged me, and said: 'Who do you want me to fight now?' That's instructive, because there's a lot of that inside Afghanistan." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is looking to a new national Afghan army as the country's key stabilizing force. But attempts to form a unified army combining Afghanistan's rival ethnic groups have proved farcical. Recruitment began in February. When the first 300 hopefuls turned up, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took a quick look at the recruits' surnames and discovered they were almost all Tajik Panshiris sent by Afghan Defense Minister Fahim. But ISAF later accepted Fahim's second group, even though 154 of those 301 recruits were Tajik, 102 Pashtun and 37 Hazara. (The population of Afghanistan is 25% Tajik, 38% Pashtun and 19% Hazara.) Nor were the recruits interviewed to determine their allegiance to any of the armed factions. "Impractical and impossible," says ISAF spokesman Captain Graham Dunlop. Essential, says Karzai's adviser. "Loyalty isn't always about race or family. For fighters—mujahedin—it's often more about who pays their wages," he explains.
The U.S. may be pinning its hopes on that motley crew, but most of the rest of the world believes that an international peacekeeping force is essential. The obvious solution is to expand ISAF's mandate from Kabul to cover the whole country. But Britain will relinquish its six-month leadership of ISAF in mid-April; its most likely successor, Turkey, is refusing to commit troops without an assurance from Washington that the U.S. will pick up the tab. "The problem is not what needs to be done," says the Western adviser, "the real problem is: Who's going to do it? Only the U.S. has the logistics and the capacity to cover the entire nation, and if they don't come forward, nobody else will. It's still pretty dangerous out there. Plus, of course, there's no way to tell how long the operation would go on for."
The lessons of abandoning Afghanistan to civil war—the precise conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban—are pretty obvious. "We screwed up the first time around," a U.S. army colonel remarks. "We can't let that happen again." The U.N.'s Brahimi agrees: "The U.S. came here only when the consequences reached them. We've been shouting from here for years and nobody was listening. But globalization works in every field and in today's world you cannot dismiss a country because it's small or far away. Because one day it will blow up in your face."