KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 27 – Abdul Aziz found himself driving an 18-passenger bus one recent afternoon on southern Afghanistan's main highway, on a particular stretch that is the no man's land between the fiefs of two rival warlords.
Suddenly, five men in a Toyota Landcruiser, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, began chasing the bus and firing. One bullet fatally struck a passenger in the back of the head, as Mr. Aziz kept driving and eventually eluded the gunmen.
In Dilaram, a town 150 miles west of here in the bailiwick of the Herat-based warlord Ismail Khan, Mr. Aziz reported the attack to the local authorities.
"But they told me it was not their responsibility to secure the road and told me to go to Gul Agha," Mr. Aziz, 30, recalled, mentioning Gul Agha Shirzai, the warlord based here in Kandahar.
As warlords have carved out chunks of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, the lawlessness that gave rise to the strict Islamic movement in the mid-1990's has begun to spread, once again, across this country. The United States-led military campaign that began on Oct. 7 has succeeded in eradicating most of the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, but it has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.
The warlords have all pledged loyalty to the interim government in Kabul. But the government is dominated by ethnic Tajiks from one division of the Northern Alliance. It is headed by the one fresh face in an old roster, Hamid Karzai, a previously little- known figure nationally who controls no real army of his own and no territory, but was handpicked by the United States.
As power has shifted back to the regional warlords away from Kabul, the absence of a strong central authority has brought back anarchy to southern Afghanistan. Bus drivers from Kandahar said soldiers at checkpoints, allied with bandits, were robbing and killing travelers. Many buses were still unaccounted for, they said.
One particular stretch of road, into the southwestern province of Nimruz, has become so dangerous that bus drivers at the station were now refusing to go there.
"The situation is worse than it was before the Taliban came to power," said Muhammad Zahir, 38, a ticket collector for the Kandahar-Herat line. "Before they were taking cars and money. But now they are also killing people."
"I'm not missing the Taliban," he added. "But security was very good under them. Now there is not one person in charge, and there is no security."
Some of the new authorities – men who have spent a generation fighting outsiders or one another – insist that there will be peace now.
"We have learned from the experience of the last seven years when the Taliban were in power," said Khan Muhammad, the defense minister for the four provinces under Mr. Shirzai's control. "We can work together now. The United States is supporting us. The United Nations is supporting us. It is a new process now."
"All the people are supporting Hamid Karzai now," he added.
It may seem churlish to insist on that point at a checkpoint with armed gunmen of unknown affiliation. Even in Kandahar Province, where virtually everybody has professed fealty to Mr. Karzai, not everybody respects the wishes of the governor, Mr. Shirzai. At the bordertown of Spinbaldak, for instance, the Noorzai and Achakzai tribes assert their control by levying tolls.
Earlier this week, the United Nations' World Food Program said it had been unable to deliver food to Kandahar because militiamen were stopping their trucks and demanding $100 each to pass.
Despite the situation in Spinbaldak and in other pockets of resistance, Mr. Shirzai controls one of the biggest swaths of Afghanistan, including the ethnic Pashtun provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan. As the governor of Kandahar before the rise of the Taliban, Mr. Shirzai had been known for his cruelty and for letting his unruly men run free.
His allies are expected to become governors of the three other provinces under his control. The former governor of Uruzgan, Jan Muhammad, is expected to reclaim his position soon. In Zabul, another former governor, Hamidullah, has already been appointed. The former governor of Helmand died during the Taliban years, but his nephew, Mullah Sher Muhammad, is now in charge.
In western Afghanistan, Mr. Khan, a Tajik, and his allies control five provinces: Herat, Badghis, Ghowr, Farah and Nimruz. A top commander in the Northern Alliance, he has long dominated the Persian-speaking region. His tenure before the Taliban was remembered for its corruption and the palace he built overlooking Herat.
In the north, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, brutally ruled much of the region for the eight years before the Taliban takeover there in 1997, and established an enduring reputation for treachery. His militia, called the Jowzjanis after their province of origin, was one of the most feared in the country.
He is now said to control most of five provinces, including Balakh, Jowzjan, Fariab, Sar-i-Pul and Samangan. This week, Mr. Karzai appointed General Dostum as deputy defense minister, in a clear move to win his support. In an interview after his appointment, General Dostum talked of extending his influence to three provinces east of his fiefdom: Takhar, Kunduz and Baghlan.
Those three provinces, in addition to Kabul, Parwan, Kapisa and Badakshan, are back in the hands of the Tajiks loyal to former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander, Ahmad Shah Massood, who was assassinated in September. Members of this faction of the Northern Alliance dominate the interim government, heading the defense, interior and foreign ministries.
Faces, all of them familiar, hold sway again over smaller patches of Afghanistan.
Abdul Qadir, the brother of another assassinated anti-Taliban leader, Abdul Haq, now controls the eastern provinces of Konarha, Laghman and Nangarhar. Before the Taliban, he had served as governor of Nangarhar, one of the country's largest opium-producing provinces. In exchange for international aid, he reduced the poppy crop by half, but then let it return to its original size when the aid was cut.
In Bamiyan, the central province where the Taliban blew up giant Buddhas this year, the ethnic Hazara governor, Karim Khalili, is back in power. A former governor, Qari Baba, has also regained control over Ghazni Province. And in eastern Afghanistan, tribal shuras, or councils, have recaptured authority over five provinces, Wardak, Logar, Paktia, Khost and Paktika.
"In northern Afghanistan, the same people who were in power before the Taliban are now in power, and it is the same in southern Afghanistan," said Muhammad Akram, the chief of police in the four provinces under Mr. Shirzai's control.
Mr. Akram spoke of the necessity of building unity and of avoiding the mistakes that led to the rise of the Taliban. But he acknowledged that he was having difficulties extending police control beyond the city of Kandahar and into the province's villages.
His officers had yet to go into villages and begin collecting weapons, a crucial goal in a country awash in arms. The villagers were resisting, clearly lacking confidence in any regional or central authority.
The main reason that different factions here in Kandahar have worked together until now, commanders say privately, is that the United States has doled out enough money to stanch the rivalries. But the money has apparently not trickled down.
"There are no salaries now," Mr. Akram said of his police officers. "They are now working for their country. We are giving them only food."
Some officers and soldiers have evidently begun demanding a greater cut, if the bus drivers traveling Afghanistan's lawless roads are to be believed.
At the bus station here, Noor Muhammad, 22, had come to search for news about his father, who had boarded a bus for Nimruz four days before. The vehicle disappeared on the way, one of four buses that went missing in the past week.
"We don't know what happened," he said. "There are so many checkpoints now, and people don't know if the men at the checkpoints will protect you or kill you."www.nytimes.com/2001/12/28/international/asia/28WARL.htmlE-mail this article