Residents of the Taliban's former headquarters city of Kandahar were last night bracing themselves for a return to the inter-factional fighting that raged there until the Taliban took control in 1994, as evidence grew that militias were preparing to fight for control of the city.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's new interim leader, called a shura, or council, to resolve the differences. But former factional leaders seemed already busy accumulating men and weapons for a return to civil war.
According to Pashtun tribal sources in Quetta in neighboring Pakistan, commanders loyal to Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Kandahar, who is angry that the city has been handed over to his bitter rival, Mullah Naqib Ullah, has been recruiting men in Pakistan to join his forces.
Gul Agha has a house in Quetta, home to thousands of refugees who have fled Afghanistan's two decades of conflict. 'I know his commanders were here last week,' said one source in the city. 'They are actively recruiting and moving men across the border.'
There are conflicting reports over the whereabouts of the Taliban's supreme spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, who escaped Kandahar, apparently with the connivance of the man who accepted the Taliban surrender, Mullah Naqib Ullah.
The threat of fighting over the spoils comes amid increasing international concern over deepening splits across Afghanistan's tribal, nationalist and religious divide, despite the agreement to form a broad-based interim government, headed by Karzai, due to be inaugurated on 22 December. Aid workers and diplomats in the region claim the tensions have hastened Afghanistan's descent into lawlessness as the Taliban disintegrated.
Already Uzbeki General Rashid Dostum has protested against the way power was shared out by the Bonn talks, making veiled threats of a return to war. Some sources claim Dostum has had satellite phone talks with Gul Agha to discuss a joint strategy.
Pashtun sources in Quetta allied to Hamid Karzai told The Observer the real problem was Gul Agha, who they claim has enjoyed the support of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Until Gul Agha is 'removed', they say, there cannot be a solution.
At least four groups allied to former Mujahideen commanders appeared to be moving fighters into the city. At the center of the dispute is the issue of who controls Kandahar, the scene of two months of ferocious US bombing attacks.
Following his personal negotiation of the surrender of Kandahar, Karzai agreed that the Taliban should hand over control of the city to Mullah Naqib Ullah, who has enjoyed good relations with them for years.
Indeed, it was Naqib Ullah's agreement to quit Kandahar with his fighters in 1994 that handed the keys of the city to the Taliban. According to his detractors - including Gul Agha ,who reoccupied his old headquarters on Friday - Mullah Naqib Ullah is Taliban in all but name.
'There is a shura in the city now to try to figure out how to control the situation,' said Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for Gul Agha.
He said the council included Hamid Karzai, Gul Agha and Mullah Naqib Ullah. 'Mullah Naqib Uullah is also there, but that is the biggest obstacle,' Pashtun declared by satellite telephone. 'Right now, we have to convince Mullah Naqib Uullah to stand aside.'
On Friday night, Pashtun all but accused Naqib Ullah of harboring Mullah Omar and 1,000 followers. 'Our information is telling us that Omar and some other leaders, they are all with Mullah Naqib Ullah.'
As well as forces loyal to Naquib Ullah, Mullah Haji Bashar (who is based in nearby Spin Boldak) and Karzai, former commanders attached to the Hezbe-i-Islami leader, Engineer Hekmatyar, occupied Qishla-i-Jadeed garrison on the outskirts of the city.
Reports in the Pakistani media claimed some other unaffiliated commanders, including Kabibulah Khan, had taken control of Taliban tanks and armory in the Bagh-i-Pul area and moved their fighters to Kandahar. Ustad Abdul Halim, another former Mujahideen commander from Professor Sayyaf's Itthead-i-Islami, was also reported en route to the battered city to revive his forces and seek a role in the new administration.
All these commanders had divided Kandahar into fiefdoms until their ejection in 1994. They were so hated that the Taliban captured the city and surrounding province almost without a fight.
Evidence has emerged of the devastation rained on Kandahar during the past two months, in particular on the Taliban positions. One Taliban official said: 'Our defense lines were broken. Seven times we tried to rebuild them and every time they bombed. 'Rows and rows of Taliban soldiers were killed and we couldn't even find the bodies.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001