Padcha Khan Zadran is lucky if he can find a stretch of ground to lay down upon. Gone are the heady days when he slept in plush hotels--as he did last December during the Afghan peace process in Bonn, fawned over by United Nations officials and U.S. diplomats. These days, with a small cadre of loyal, gun-toting soldiers, he patrols a rocky, potholed stretch of road that connects one lonely Afghan town, Gardez, to another, Khowst. He's too old now, 60, to sleep in the hills as he did during the jihad against the Soviets. More often that not, he winds up in an ancestral mud hut in Outmani, with his toothless uncle Zafar, swatting away flies and pondering, inconsolably, his precipitous fall. "Do I have a scary face?" he asks. "Is this the face of a killer?"
Many people would say yes. After Zadran rained rockets on Gardez last month in a bid to reclaim the governorship he had lost two months earlier, Hamid Karzai accused his old friend and ally of murder and ordered his immediate arrest. Three dozen civilians were killed in the indiscriminate attack, and 60 more wounded. If Zadran doesn't surrender by this Wednesday, says Karzai, troops will swarm down to take care of him. The warlord insists he was attacked first and was only defending himself against bandits and Qaeda sympathizers, who he claims have infested Gardez. Zadran is convinced that Karzai is on a personal mission to destroy him because he didn't vote for him in Bonn. "Karzai is the one who should be counting his days," he rails. "He's the guilty one in all of this. We'll see what happens if he decides to attack me."
The standoff is exacerbating growing tensions in Afghanistan. With only a month left in his interim administration, Karzai has yet to assert full control over the various warlords who continue to rule bits and pieces of the country. Ongoing U.S. military operations in the rugged mountains south of Gardez further complicate the situation. Zadran controls, through family ties, three key commanders working with the Americans in the border areas around Khowst. His brother Kamal Khan's 600 soldiers provide security and manpower to soldiers at two U.S. bases outside the city. His son Abdul Wali last week brought another 300 of his own soldiers to bolster the American force. Zadran is sure the Americans won't get involved in his dispute with Karzai. "They will lose themselves if they don't work with me," he says. "There's no one else who wants to fight Al Qaeda like me."
The Americans aren't so sure. They blame Zadran for a series of mishaps that have cost innocent lives and raised uncomfortable questions about their policy of working with warlords. Last December, U.S. warplanes bombed a convoy near Khowst on Zadran's advice, thinking it was Al Qaeda. The convoy actually consisted of some 60 village elders on their way to Kabul to congratulate Karzai. The Americans continued to work with Zadran, using his troops and intelligence during Operation Anaconda. But since Zadran rocketed Gardez, the Americans have been less inclined to tolerate him. "In Anaconda, I can't think of a single thing Padcha Khan did that helped us," one U.S. official said recently. But while the Americans will criticize Za-dran quietly, they're reluctant to encourage any moves by the government that could compromise their hunt for Al Qaeda in his territory. "You can't send in a few planes and bomb him," says one U.S. official. "That's not going to solve the problem."
For Karzai, weeks of threats and counterthreats have produced nothing but embarrassment. He now believes removing Zadran may be his best chance to show the world he can deal effectively with warlords. Last week troops led by Northern Alliance commander Bismullah Khan began to mobilize at a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Kabul to prepare an operation against Zadran. The potential for wider conflict is huge. Zadran's turf is predominantly Pashtun, and resentments toward Tajiks from the north run high. Even those who don't support the warlord may rise up against any incursion by the Northern Alliance, whom they see as sworn enemies. Zadran is relying on that, and on his own sense of grandeur, to make his last stand. "The people of 11 districts will rise up to defend me because they only want me as governor," he shouted last week. "This is their dream."
His uncle Zafar is less sure. Sitting in his mud hut, he can see the writing on the wall. "This is a sign of the doomsday," he says. "Padcha Khan is a big man, and it's the little men getting power. It's the end of the world."