WASHINGTON — For all the euphoria over the pace of military progress, the United States and its allies face serious obstacles as they struggle to convert the fall of northern Afghanistan into long-term political gains.
The United Nations launched the process Wednesday with a unanimous resolution calling for the urgent creation of an interim government and an appeal for member states to support emergency peacekeeping efforts.
But the slow pace of international diplomacy, new rivalries in the scramble for power and tension among commanders have already jeopardized the transition, according to some of the top U.S. experts on Afghanistan.
Creating a post-Taliban government has hit serious potholes, with the Northern Alliance leader on Wednesday declaring his opposition to efforts to install the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, as head of a new broad-based government.
President Burhanuddin Rabbani said through an envoy that the ex-monarch could return to Afghanistan but only as a private citizen.
"Rabbani's statement will make it very difficult for this grand assembly of opposition to materialize," said Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
It would not be the first time Rabbani has acted as a deal-spoiler, according to U.S. and U.N. sources.
Rabbani seized the presidency after the fall of Afghanistan's communist regime in 1992, when seven warlords agreed to rotate the top political job--an arrangement orchestrated by Pakistan. But Rabbani refused to hand over power when his turn was up.
Under his rule, Afghan warlords went to war against one another, destroying half the capital, Kabul, until the Taliban swept them all from power in 1996.
Rabbani, who supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and opposed the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, also balked at repeated U.N. efforts to create a broad-based government, according to Peter Tomsen, the last U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, who was there from 1989 to 1992.
"Rabbani is trying to be president again. And there's no one in the Northern Alliance now powerful enough to stop him," said Barnett Rubin, one of the foremost experts on Afghanistan and director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
Rabbani's claim to power received a major endorsement from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin last month during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
President Bush has been pressing Putin to urge Rabbani to cooperate with the U.N.
Under Wednesday's U.N. resolution, special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi hopes to convene a summit of Afghanistan's major ethnic, religious and tribal factions to decide the country's future. It will probably meet in the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland or Austria next week, U.S. officials said.
The resolution called on all parties to accept the invitation "without delay, in good faith and without preconditions."
In the meantime, the U.N. appealed to Afghan factions and their foreign supporters to support efforts to "ensure the safety and security" of areas no longer under Taliban control and to respect Kabul as the capital of all Afghan people.
But diplomacy rarely moves quickly. Delay may allow the fractious coalition of minorities in the Northern Alliance to maintain its hold on Kabul, alienating Pushtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, and perhaps paving the way for fighting among anti-Taliban forces.
"The Afghan groups are waiting for the U.N. to be a catalyst for their dialogue, but the U.N. has been too slow, too effete and held too many meetings. They haven't really engaged the Afghans yet," said Tomsen, who keeps in close touch with the various Afghan opposition factions.
"If this process drags on for another 15 to 20 days, it may be too late," Tomsen said.
The Northern Alliance isn't holding together all that well either.
There are reports that one of the three factions that captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif called in airstrikes on one of its purported allies.
Kabul has so far not faced such fallout, as only one faction has troops there. But experts warn that others will want to share the limelight, which could spark further friction.
"The biggest immediate problem is Kabul," said Milton Bearden, who ran the CIA operation against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1986 to 1989. "If you look at a map, everybody is where they are supposed to be in an ethnic sense, except for Kabul. That's what needs to be fixed--right away."
But because the Northern Alliance is already in place, any effort to secure the capital and prevent infighting could require a major international military presence, he said.
"The United States decided it had to have big military gains before Ramadan and damn the consequences. It didn't spend the time required to pull together an alternative government, so everything we feared has happened," Rubin said.
Fears of anarchy were reflected in a series of telephone calls Wednesday by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Musharraf stressed to all three the need to prevent the Northern Alliance from setting itself up as a government, the need to speed up U.N. diplomatic efforts, and the urgency of putting a multinational force into northern Afghanistan, according to Pakistani officials.
The Pakistani leader also urged all three to agree that Kabul should be designated as a demilitarized city.
Times staff writer William Orme at the United Nations and Maria de Cristofaro of The Times' Rome bureau contributed to this report.