WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan is once again divided among regional warlords: Rashid Dostum in the north, Gul Agha in Kandahar, Ismail Khan around Herat, Haji Abdul Qadir at Jalalabad.
They say they're loyal to new Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and want to help the United States catch Osama bin Laden. But there is plenty of suspicion they're focused more on their own power.
The lack of central control has created widespread lawlessness that is slowing food aid and creating dangers for American soldiers.
''The folks on the ground over there ... they understand how dangerous that is,'' Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday. Officials have stressed repeatedly, ''This is a dangerous place, that allegiances sometimes change,'' Myers said. A Green Beret died in an apparent ambush last week.
Long term, the warlords could scuttle the chances of making Afghanistan a stable nation, some experts fear.
Unless Karzai can end the banditry and impose control, refugees will be too scared to return home, opium growing will again surface and warlords might begin the vicious cycle of civil wars, said Andrew Hess, an Afghan expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
''In some ways, in terms of the warlords, we're back to where we were before Sept. 11, really kind of quickly,'' Hess said.
For America, war commander Gen. Tommy Franks said last week that it is still crucial to work through local leaders in a country as daunting and unfamiliar as Afghanistan. But Pentagon officials have acknowledged the drawbacks, including al-Qaida escaping by bribing local commanders.
It's unclear which ''allies of convenience ... can become real allies over the longer term,'' Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently told The New York Times.
Karzai is trying to create a national army to blunt the warlords' power, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
''Instead of having all of the various tribal chiefs and warlords and opposition force leaders have their own separate factions. ... Karzai (and his defense minister) are attempting to find a way to encourage private citizens to turn in weapons,'' Rumsfeld said on C-SPAN.
Karzai's foreign minister has said a key goal is to establish security. But so far, chaos has been widespread.
Relief groups often can't get food aid to some villages.
''With different warlords controlling different roads, there are some areas where we just can't go,'' World Food Program spokeswoman Abby Spring said recently.
Skirmishes are reported several times a week in the region around Mazar-e-Sharif among militias controlled by northern warlords, including Dostum. The Uzbek chieftain at first refused to participate in the government, saying it favored ethnic Tajiks, but then was named deputy defense minister.
Around Jalalabad, Haji Abdul Qadir is in control but has no role in Karzai's government. A brother recently was accused of helping the families of al-Qaida fighters escape to Pakistan.
In Kandahar, Gov. Gul Agha, considered a ruthless fighter, has pledged support to Karzai and the U.S. goal of catching bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. But critics say he has concentrated on strengthening his power, not searching for Omar.
Around Herat, Ismail Khan worked to strengthen his grip by organizing an election for mayor, designating about 700 men as voters. They chose an ally of his. Until recently, he was charging aid trucks money to cross from Iran.
Even within Karzai's government, there are tensions. Several key ministries are held by leaders of a northern alliance faction who, while working with him, still are believed loyal to their backers.
Karzai himself has a clean human rights record and is strongly backed by the United States. But he controls no large number of troops. And many warlords oppose a big international security force.
So far, Karzai is using a variety of ways to entice warlords to cooperate ''depending on which ... province in which part of the country,'' Rumsfeld said.
He will have to be careful and highly skilled, Hess said, reaching out to them ''one by one, in a way that doesn't make them worry he is trying to centralize too much.''
Sally Buzbee covers foreign affairs and the military for The Associated Press in Washington.
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