KABUL: On the same day US-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai enacted a law paving the way for landmark elections, he struck a power-sharing deal with hardline holy warriors opposed to some of his most important initiatives.
Unease is growing among Mr Karzai's traditional allies, political party leaders and the international community over what price the president is willing to pay to smooth his path to the presidency in the country's first ever direct vote in September.
Details of Wednesday's meeting between Mr Karzai, an urbane, English-speaking reformer, and battle-hardened "mujahideen", or holy warriors, are sketchy. And in Afghanistan's world of fast-shifting alliances, deals can quickly unravel.
But members of the mujahideen who attended the gathering in Kabul said the commanders and governors vowed not to field a candidate against Mr Karzai in return for top government positions.
Western diplomats and others are also concerned the mujahideen will win extensive control over the courts and a new parliament. "This deal will jeopardize the very democracy the world intends to bring to Afghanistan," said Fazil Sangcharaki, a prominent Afghan journalist.
Leaders at the meeting included Abdul Rabb Rasoul Sayyaf, a religiously conservative commander who has defied calls by Mr Karzai and the Americans to hand over weapons and disband his militia under a disarmament plan seen vital to making elections fair.
Also present was Ismail Khan, another powerbroker from the Western city of Herat who has been slow to disarm and widely criticized by human rights groups for suppressing freedom of speech and action in his province, particularly for women.
"I don't mind Karzai sharing power, but not principles," said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Whoever comes into the government must abide by those principles and must be competent.
There is a danger that you will deviate from those reforms if you form an alliance with someone against those reforms." Western diplomats and Afghan analysts say that despite the display of US military power that accompanies Mr Karzai's every step, including heavily armed private bodyguards, snipers and flyovers by fighter jets, he is not as strong as he seems.
And the perception among many Afghans that Mr Karzai is reliant on the Americans both hurts and helps him. While it dents Afghan pride, they realise that without Washington's backing there would be even less reconstruction than there has been and Taliban and other Muslim militants would find it easier to fight their bloody insurgency.
Mr Karzai is a Pushtun, Afghanistan's traditional ruling clan and its largest, but experts say he does not have the backing of tribes and elders, which counts for much in rural areas.
The mujahideen is made up mainly of Tajiks, the second largest group well represented in the government after the US military used its ground forces to topple the Taliban.
While Mr Karzai and other Western-leaning Pushtun technocrats in the government have differences with mujahideen leaders, there are signs the president may be losing support of natural allies.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the finance minister, may decide to run against Mr Karzai, his brother says, although the senior official said he had yet to make up his mind.
"People say Karzai is the Mayor of Kabul," said Hashmat Ghani, Ashraf's brother. "I don't think he is entitled to be called the gatekeeper of the palace."
As well as his perceived weakness, Mr Karzai's major problem is time. The Bonn Agreement in late 2001 mapped out an ambitious dash to elections which the Americans seem bent on achieving.
Resistance from mujahideen leaders has seen disarmament lag, Taliban and Al Qaeda militants are stepping up attacks and high illiteracy rates mean many Afghans will be in the dark even if they do turn up to vote.
"I think elections are completely illogical," said Hamidullah Tarzi, a leading Afghan academic and writer. "The country is not ready. There is no stability or security, especially in Pushtun areas. If you leave them out, there will be a lot of trouble."
Rumours circulate in Kabul that the vote may be put off, but the price could be high for George W. Bush, who is desperate for a foreign policy "success" after the quagmire of Iraq, and for the international community that has backed the poll.
Yet even the Americans appear to be aware it may have been over-ambitious to try to disarm private militia, build a national army and police force, eradicate drug production and hold elections in such a short timeframe.
"We're doing things that otherwise would take decades to do," a US official said this week. "Whether in retrospect we should have given more time for these things; some people say we should have given, instead of two years, five years, or three years." -Reuters