QALA-I-MURATBEG, Afghanistan—What passes for the law in this military outpost just north of Kabul is a ragtag band of teenagers whose authority emanates from the Kalashnikov rifles they wield with more bravado than skill.
Like other Northern Alliance soldiers-turned-policemen in much of this country, the troops here have yet to learn how much of their clout with local villagers and Taliban captives may erode as the first of thousands of foreign peacekeepers begin arriving this weekend.
An international force to secure Kabul, the capital, and its outskirts is part of the ambitious peace plan negotiated in Germany this month that will install an interim government Saturday. The incoming administration is made up mostly of alliance warlords whose regional power struggles have kept Afghanistan at war for the last two decades.
It is precisely this threat to the status of local chieftains that has delayed the final details of the peacekeeping force and the U.N. mandate it needs to function effectively.
Abdul Majid is in charge of the 60 men and boys who loiter in a warren of abandoned shops and parched courtyards here that serves as police precinct, defense outpost and temporary jail.
"We are the soldiers of Haji Abdul Qayum," Majid, one of the few local protectors old enough to shave, said of the warlord who controls this village and a nearby checkpoint on the road to Kabul. "If he tells us we will be replaced by foreign forces, we will honor that. But it is his decision, not Kabul's."
Such private armies wield power throughout Afghanistan, and although most commanders have pledged cooperation with the interim government, the integration of the foreign peacekeepers could be fraught with regional resistance if militia bosses try to flex their muscle.
With only three days left before the interim government takes over from the alliance forces who overran Kabul on Nov. 13, Afghanistan's de facto authorities were still squabbling Wednesday about the number and mandate of the foreign peacekeepers.
Prime Minister-designate Hamid Karzai assured European leaders during a visit to Rome that the new government is agreeable to the deployment of 3,000 to 5,000 troops to take over some police functions and provide security for the fledgling attempt at civilian rule.
But even Karzai said the final decision will be up to incoming Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim, who has insisted that no more than 1,000 foreign troops are needed--and solely to protect government facilities where the 30-member Cabinet will be working.
Afghanistan's acting foreign minister, Abdullah, has also frustrated a final agreement by informing the U.N. Security Council by letter this week that the foreign troops should have limited powers of enforcement and stay in Kabul for just three months.
In London, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon told Parliament on Wednesday that Britain will lead the peacekeeping force for three months, after which another as-yet-unnamed country will take over.
Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed that British peacekeepers will not be in Afghanistan for long.
"Our troops are not there on a long-term basis. We believe they will be there for several months," Blair said. "It is important that they are there at the outset in order to make sure that the new provisional government in Kabul can operate effectively.
"It is vital for us to bolster the political agreement that has been reached with a security assistance force. . . . It's very much in the interests of this country that we increase the prospects of a stable future in Afghanistan."
Western diplomats who have begun straggling back to the abandoned Afghan capital in recent days say the eleventh-hour haggling over the force is mostly bluster to appease those local warlords still reluctant to give up their power.
"The Afghan authorities have said they may accept 5,000 troops," said one diplomat at the British mission in Kabul, drawing a distinction between what is being said in public and what alliance leaders are agreeing to on the quiet.
Britain to Lead International Force
Britain has been taking the lead in negotiating the force details because it has agreed to head the mission and contribute the largest contingent. As many as 1,500 British troops will be made available.