The warlords and private militias who were once regarded as the west's staunchest allies in Afghanistan are now a greater threat to the country's security than the Taliban, according to the interim president, Hamid Karzai.
His claim comes in the wake of a decision to delay the presidential election for a second time and to postpone the parliamentary elections until next spring because of a sharp increase in violence.
"The frustration that we have in this country is that progress has sometimes been stopped by private militias, life has been threatened by private militias, so it should not be tolerated," he told the New York Times. "Without disarmament, the Afghan state will have really serious difficulties."
There are now estimated to be around 50,000 armed militiamen attached to warlords, despite attempts to get them to hand in their weapons before the election.
So far, only an estimated 10,000 have agreed to leave the militias and only 7,000 weapons have been handed in.
While the Taliban have been blamed for much of the recent violence, which has been in protest at the elections, there is evidence that warlords are taking advantage of the unstable situation outside Kabul.
"We tried to do it by persuasion," Mr Karzai said of attempts to disarm the militia. "The stick has to be used, definitely." He dismissed the Taliban threat as "exaggerated".
Mr Karzai is the clear favorite to win the presidential election, which is now scheduled for October 9. He faces no real threat from any of the militia leaders, which has led to claims he has done a deal, an allegation he denies.
He said he regretted that the parliamentary elections were being delayed until next year but accepted that people would like to see the militia substantially disarmed before going to the polls.
The president also accepted that corruption would have to be tackled to win the confidence of the electorate.
"We will have many more messy years to come before we can claim that we have succeeded," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004