It is a conspicuous show of power and wealth: Afghan strongmen roam the streets of Kabul in model sports utility vehicles surrounded by bands of armed bodyguards.
They want to be called "mujahedin" freedom fighters -- those who led the "holy war" against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then fought the hard-line Taliban during the 1990s.
But many Afghans see them as rapacious warlords who led their country to the brink of disintegration, destroying Kabul and other major cities in an atrocious civil war during the 1990s.
They also are seen as thugs who may have killed, maimed, or terrorized more Afghans than the Soviet invaders.
Most of these strongmen now back incumbent President Hamid Karzai's reelection bid and eye Kabul's "Arg-e Shahi" presidential palace as a citadel of their power and influence.
While opinion polls in Afghanistan suggest Karzai is well ahead of rival candidates in the upcoming presidential election, one of his key election maneuvers has been to build a formidable alliance of regional warlords.
The moves may help secure his reelection on August 20. But they are raising critical questions about governance, accountability, and the rule of law in Afghanistan.
In a move that has worried critics and rights activists, Karzai's office says General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord from northern Afghanistan, can return to Afghanistan whenever he wishes.
Dostum reportedly is living in self-imposed exile in Turkey after he was charged with kidnapping and torturing a political rival last year. Dostum's militia fighters also stand accused of war crimes for allegedly suffocating hundreds of Taliban prisoners in shipping containers.
Dostum and another warlord, Mohammad Mohaqiq, have declared public support for Karzai's reelection bid. They did so after reportedly being promised control of several cabinet posts each in a future Karzai administration. That agreement is thought to be last in a series of deals between Karzai and Afghanistan's notorious factional militia commanders.
In A Bind
Another deal in early May led Karzai to choose the powerful ethnic-Tajik commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim Khan as his running mate. That deal has drawn criticism as a bad omen for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan.
Fahim has a reputation for brutality and serious human rights violations as a former guerrilla leader.
Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell, who spent nearly eight years in Afghanistan as a United Nations and European Union envoy, tells RFE/RL that Karzai's alliances with warlords are deplorable.
But he says Karzai has shown great political skills by building such a big coalition of support.
"Considering that, unfortunately, there are no political parties in Afghanistan -- and certainly no reformist political parties for which, I think, the West bears some responsibility -- I think he has been extremely skillful, from his viewpoint, in weaving a fabric of supporters who, whether they are warlords or not, [all support him]," Vendrell says.
But he "deplores" the choice of Fahim as a Karzai running mate because Vendrell and his colleagues engaged in painstaking diplomacy between 2002 and 2004 that eventually persuaded Karzai to drop Fahim from his ticket during the 2004 presidential election.
"Fahim had the makings of a national warlord, which is far more serious. And of course he was in a position of taking over from Karzai if something happened to him," Vendrell recalls. "Well now he has chosen him again. And I doubt that he will bring many votes, amongst the [ethnic] Tajiks. He may even take [away] some support from Pashtuns for Karzai. I really find it quite bizarre that he has chosen Fahim again."
Karzai inherited the warlord problem eight years ago under the UN-sponsored Bonn agreement that made him the head of Afghanistan's first post-Taliban transitional administration. The Bonn Accords also awarded cabinet posts to anti-Taliban militia commanders whose fighters held de facto control over Kabul.
Ahmed Rashid, author of "Decent into Chaos," has chronicled how the U.S.-led coalition spent hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up those commanders. Rashid concludes that the policy reinvigorated Afghanistan's illegal drug industry and paved the way for the birth of a neo-Taliban insurgency by subcontracting security to the warlords.
Last month, Karzai acknowledged that the upcoming election will be "difficult and controversial." But he defended his alliances with strongmen like Fahim, saying that such deals are important steps for national reconciliation.
"We need a man upon whom we can rely in hard times -- for a president, that is extremely important, and Fahim Khan will deliver that," Karzai told participants at a Washington seminar in early May. "Fahim Khan has been one of those people who contributed immensely in the war against terrorism, shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Karzai added that "for stability, for continuity, [and] for taking the country forward in difficult times, we have decided to have him. It is good for us. It is good for America."
But many Afghans see Karzai's warlord alliances as a dubious political tactic that ultimately will do more harm than good.
'Criminals At The Heart' Of Government
In Kabul, Afghan businessman Khan Jan Alekozai suggests that instead of being held accountable for past atrocities, warlords have exploited their political and military ties with the U.S.-led coalition -- continuing to engage in criminal enterprise with impunity.
"These people continued their old habits," Alekozai says to explain the popular perception of warlords. "Although they trimmed their beards and began wearing business suits, their mentality never changed. They continued with looting, plundering and deceit."
He suggests that the warlord power is growing with every day. "They now manipulate the government, aid projects, [major] business contracts and these strongmen virtually control Afghanistan wealth," Alekozai says. "They kidnap traders and investors as they patronize kidnapping rackets. [And] all this happens while foreign powers look on."
Alekozai says that the Afghans are grateful for the sacrifices in blood and treasure that the United States and its Western allies are making to bring stability back to their country.
"But the Afghans still have doubts about them because they relied on people here who had failed Afghans in the past because they raped people and had killed their children," he says.
Alekozai says Afghan hopes for transparent governance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law cannot be realized as long as warlords enjoy impunity.
Such views are echoed widely.
Brad Adams, the London-based Asia director for Human Rights Watch, tells RFE/RL that Karzai's alliance with the warlords is a disaster. "It is a disaster for Afghanistan. It puts criminals, including war criminals, at the very heart of a future Karzai administration," Adams says.
Adams suggests that the real challenge is the growing strength of the warlords. "They are growing in strength now, though; that's the problem," he says. "The more that they are brought into the heart of government, the more access to resources they have."
He cites access to "narco-dollars" from the drug trade and involvement in corrupt or otherwise illegal business, saying they amass huge wealth. "The wealthier they get...the more they can pay people to be their foot soldiers."
Adams suggests that warlords could eventually become a much bigger problem than the Taliban insurgency. "It goes counter to the whole idea of building up the state and a proper army and proper police force -- doing away with illegal armed groups, and it's going to cause long-term problems," he predicts. "Even if the Taliban movement fades or is defeated, then they are going to deal with this problem -- which is going to be very big."
Western diplomats and military leaders say the inclusion of warlords in government projects a negative public image. They cite examples of a few individuals who have grown from being militia commanders into their new roles as administrators and political leaders. Some point to historical parallels with France in the Middle Ages, when successive dynasties cut deals with regional strongmen and gradually brought them into the national mainstream.
But Afghans reject such parallels and point to the centralized progressive Afghan state that foreign-sponsored warlords have brought down through their infighting.