It is noon in northern Afghanistan, Balkh province. The autumn sky is empty and bright. A tough 60-year-old farmer named Mamood sits for an interview in the shade of a tree. Surrounding us in all directions are fields of marijuana on the verge of harvest. The plants are tall, thick and fragrant, their dark green flowers glistening with potent oils.

Soon the crop will be cut, dried and beaten against linen in small rooms to extract the resin that makes hashish. It’s dirty work that falls primarily to women and children. The rooms fill with dust; asthma is a common occupational hazard. In a month the farmers will sow these same fields with opium poppy. After each crop come the marauding gunmen who collect “taxes” of 20 percent on the harvest.

“In the past few weeks they’ve taken money, some vehicles and kidnapped a girl,” says Mamood. “They work for the commanders. They take whatever they want and they will kill you if you try and stop them. When you hear ‘commander’ just think ‘thief’ or ‘murderer.’ That is all they are.”

Mamood is not talking about the Taliban or Al Qaeda but rather about Afghanistan’s mujahedeen warlords, or jangsalaran in Dari. These men are America’s allies, central players in the international effort to rebuild a state in the world’s third-poorest country.

These are the same men who killed 40,000-50,000 civilians during their factional fighting in Kabul between 1992 and 1994. Under their rule chaos reigned in much of the countryside: Militias raped, plundered and destroyed the economy. At times there were between ten and fourteen separate currencies circulating, each printed by a different commander. Whole villages fled; trade and agriculture broke down. As John Sifton of Human Rights Watch puts it, “What these guys did made Sarajevo look like kindergarten.”

Now, instead of being treated as part of the problem and hunted down, the jangsalaran are being folded into government and given new power and legitimacy by the UN and the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai. The “commanders” now use titles like “security chief,” “governor,” “minister” or even “presidential candidate.” International administrators justify the political inclusion of these mujahedeen commanders as “the price of peace.”

Indeed, a return to the open factional warfare of the early 1990s is unlikely. But neither is Afghanistan headed toward real peace and prosperity. Instead, this country of 20-25 million inhabitants is an embryonic narco-mafia state, where politics rely on paramilitary networks engaged in everything from poppy farming, heroin processing and vote rigging to extortion and the commercial smuggling of commodities like electronics and auto parts. And while the Western pundit class applauds the recent Afghan elections, the people here suffer renewed exploitation at the hands of America’s local partners.

Back under the tree in the marijuana fields, Mamood is joined by other farmers, who recount a litany of depredations.

“A few weeks ago I had two motorcycles stolen,” says Saja Hudin, who also lives and farms in this rural community two hours from Mazar-i-Sharif. “I had a guest and we were going to work some of my land near Kudbarq. Two gunmen stopped us. I thought they were security or I would have tried to escape. They took both motorcycles and all my money. I was holding 12,000 afghani for a cousin. One of the men wanted to kill us, the other stopped him. Now I am in debt.” Hudin says that one of the perpetrators was the nephew of a local commander, Shafi Dewana.

Dewana means crazy,” says another man in English.

Saja Hudin reported the theft to the authorities–but in Balkh province people like Crazy Shafi are the authorities. The new Karzai-appointed governor is Mohammed Atta, a powerful warlord and commander of the Seventh Corps of what UN disarmament experts politely refer to as “Afghan Military Forces.” These are the private armies that now have government money and sometimes uniforms but are not part of the US-trained Afghan National Army. Crazy Shafi is one of Mohammed Atta’s deputies.

“We had an audience with Governor Atta. I told him about the robbery,” says Saja Hudin. “He said he’d tell Shafi to give back the motorcycles, but when I left, Crazy Shafi found me and threatened to kill me if I went back to the governor.” The farmers explain that Shafi does not control this immediate area but holds sway along the road that leads to Mazar-i-Sharif.

“A month ago Crazy Shafi even took a girl who traveled through his area,” says Saja Hudin. In a moment of naïveté I suggest to my driver and interpreter that we go find and interview Crazy Shafi.

“No,” says the farmer Mamood. “He is really crazy.”

“Yeah, go visit him and he will fuck all of you,” says a farmer to peels of laughter from the visibly nervous crew of men under the tree. Unconvinced, I press the point.

“No! Are you crazy?” says my driver, Mobin, in English. “He will steal my car. Why do you think they call him crazy?” Then I realize it’s a ridiculous proposal.

Back in Mazar, I track down a local translator with an NGO, who tells me more about the kidnapped girl. The young man, who recently returned from exile in Pakistan and has Western sensibilities, had a tryst with the woman. She was “modern” like him, a free spirit–“not a prostitute,” he says, “but she had been with some men.” He won’t tell me her name.

Crazy Shafi saw the young woman as fair game. So he kidnapped her and raped and beat her for two days. Once released, she disappeared.

“Maybe she is in Uzbekistan or Pakistan,” says the young translator. “Nobody knows.” Later in the middle of a somewhat formal dinner with some of his colleagues, the young man leans over to me and flips open his cell phone. On the screen is the photo of the young woman, smiling, unveiled, looking over her shoulder. “That’s the girl,” he says in a depressed, almost drunken tone.

Commanders like Crazy Shafi do not restrict themselves to motorcycles, women and taxation. They also intimidate journalists, kidnap people for ransom and, according to rural Afghans whom I interviewed and to the Kabul-based Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, are engaged in widespread land seizures.

Some stolen plots belonged to refugees who had fled Afghanistan; others were traditional commons used by villages to pasture animals and gather firewood. The boom in drug crops, particularly opium poppy, has put a new premium on Afghanistan’s limited arable land. “If you cannot defend your land, they will take it,” explains Mamood.

Mazar-i-Sharif sits on a flat plain surrounded by distant mountains. It is an ugly, sprawling town, but it is filled with white doves, called kaftar. The doves congregate at the tomb of Hazrat Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed. People here say that any pigeon of a different hue will turn white within forty days of being set free in Mazar-i-Sharif. And indeed, there are no gray or even speckled pigeons here.

Many of the people who move to Mazar are not so easily transformed. As a prelude to becoming governor here, the warlord Mohammed Atta had his men lay siege to the home and offices of a rival, the provincial security chief Gen. Mohammed Akram Khakrizwal, who is almost universally acknowledged to be an honest man committed to the rule of law. Police loyal to Khakrizwal were driven away, and an armed standoff ensued for the next twenty days.

During the siege, Khakrizwal was resupplied with food and water by the small garrison of British troops stationed here, but the foreign soldiers were unable or unwilling to intervene further. Eventually some accommodation was reached and Mohammed Atta was appointed governor of Balkh province.

Now back on the job, the barrel-chested, thickly bearded Pashtun General Khakrizwal–in charge of a largely Tajik and Uzbek area–describes the real and very imperfect nature of his work: “We have security here in Mazar, but in the districts we have only 10 percent control. There are many serious crimes–murder, drug trafficking–but even more important, there are ethnic tensions between Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks as well as land and water conflicts. We do our best to stop any violence between these groups and between the political parties.” The parties he refers to are Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Jumbish and Atta’s wing of Jamiat, the party once led by the lionized but actually quite vicious Ahmed Shah Massoud.

“Only some of the police are loyal to me,” continues the general. “We lack the equipment we need, but I am trying to rebuild my forces.” As for the standoff with Atta, the chief is simultaneously blunt and diplomatic. “Atta wants power. Now he is my boss.” The general’s flat smile says: Welcome to Afghanistan.

Mohammed Atta’s offices are considerably more lavish than General Khakrizwal’s. The mood inside this walled compound is one of intimidating leisure. Among the men waiting to meet Atta is a bohemian-looking Afghan film director named Wakil Negbin. He claims to have made the only Afghan action flick in years.

Atta’s inner offices are spacious, lined with fine red Persian carpets and furnished with long beige couches and several awkwardly futuristic overstuffed lounge chairs. The governor is tall and lean, with closely cropped hair and beard. He wears a superb black business suit and gold Rolex, but the clothes seem to make him uncomfortable: he’s still getting used to his new persona. We are served tea and pistachio nuts. Armed men guard the doors.

I ask Governor Atta about the charges that his deputies, like Crazy Shafi, are pillaging the countryside, involved in the drug trade and refusing the UN’s requests to disarm.

“I have no military forces anymore; I am just the governor,” says Atta, staring at me blankly. “My concerns now are reconstruction and security, building schools and clinics.” In fact, it’s well-known that Atta is still in command of his troops and that he refuses to demobilize according to the UN-set schedule. And, like most governors, he keeps most of the taxes he collects.

As for his recent military clashes with his rival Dostum: “We have had our disagreements. Dostum is very aggressive, and when I was commander of Seventh Corps I had to defend my people when he attacked.”

Was Atta’s siege of Gen. Akram Khakrizwal’s offices also a defensive move? “What happened there,” says Atta in a tone of feigned apology, “was that some of Akram’s men were caught smuggling narcotics. So we had to arrest them and fire some of the police. But that incident was really very minor.”

As we talk, a dapper Afghan journalist enters and without a word starts shooting video on an ancient TV camera. The man has a finely sculpted goatee, wears a brown velvet Nehru jacket, creased black slacks and spotless designer shoes. After a few minutes he leaves. The interview goes on for another hour.

That night when Balkh state TV–the only channel available in Mazar–starts its three-hour nightly broadcast, the dandy journalist with the goatee and funky jacket appears behind a desk reading the news. Top item: Governor Atta’s schedule. Prominently featured: Governor Atta’s “cordial meeting” with a journalist from “an important American magazine.” The newsreader explains, “The two discussed the progress of reconstruction in Balkh and the importance of Governor Atta’s work.” My translator is also named as being in attendance. The broadcast has the creepy, stilted feel of old-school dictatorship. We leave Mazar at dawn.

Back in Kabul, the presidential elections are approaching. At 1:30 am, the night before the vote, I am awakened by a huge and close blast. The photographer Teru Kuwayama and I run out to investigate. The dark streets are empty except for packs of feral dogs. A dust storm has risen from the rubble of the city’s largely destroyed west side. Soon we find the source of the explosion: Two rockets have hit our immediate neighborhood, exploding above a UN media compound. There are no casualties, but the US troops guarding the area are jumpy. “Put the fucking camera down!” shouts a soldier from behind some floodlights. We go back to bed.

The next day more violence is expected, but none materializes. Instead of tragedy, the vote plays out as farce. By late afternoon, it is clear that there is massive vote fraud under way. Most of Karzai’s fourteen opponents are calling for a boycott and suspension of elections. Journalists are running back and forth across town to find the most egregious technical errors and blatant fraud. The crisis is getting so bad that President Karzai calls a restricted, invitation-only press conference.

I am rolling with some scruffy American photographers. We are not on Karzai’s list, which seems to include no more than a dozen news organizations. But soon we are joined by other journalists all demanding to get in. Finally the press officer relents and we are slowly passed through layer upon layer of DynCorp security guards and across the desolate gardens of the classy but run-down Afghan presidential palace, which looks like an old European hotel. In a small, wood-paneled conference room we meet Karzai.

“The commission will look into all of these problems, but I am sure the vote was free,” says the cloaked and karakol-wearing Karzai after a few jokes and greetings.

Throughout the rather intimate press conference, Karzai invokes the image of “a poor, hungry, cold Afghan woman waiting to vote. She cannot be intimidated.” Questions are sparse. Karzai seems like a nervous jollier, trying to play down the election debacle with jokes about Lise Doucet from the BBC. “Where is she with her sharp questions? I am ready.” He repeatedly asks for questions from “my friend Ahmed Rashid.” The distinguished Pakistani journalist has one query but declines to respond to the president’s further cajoling.

Finally I am called on. Citing specific examples, I ask about allegations that Karzai’s campaign has used fraud and intimidation–in short, warlord tactics. The president grows angry. “What report? Human Rights Watch? They do not understand Afghan culture. Tribal culture, it is very democratic. Tribal elders cannot be intimidated. They do not know what is really going on. The tribal elders from Khost were just here. They signed a document saying everything is OK.”

The UN, which essentially ran the elections, likewise does its best to calm the situation with deft spin and dulcet tones from its smoothly effective spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. “I am not just trying to be some happy guy. I admit there are problems. But there are also genuine efforts to sort this out. Let’s give it some time,” he says, stopping politely on the way out of the crisis meeting, his hand holding my shoulder as if we were old friends. Before long, the crisis is being beamed back at us by the international media as a matter of “a few glitches” or “questions about ink.”

Karzai insists that democracy and freedom are winning in Afghanistan. He denies that he will buy off his opponents and the warlords with cabinet posts, governorships and ministries. Never mind that this is already his government’s modus operandi.

Given current dynamics, Afghanistan will remain a weak and fragmented state, easily controlled by outside powers, its economy broken, its common people mercilessly exploited, suffering from a low-simmering but ineffective insurgency. One place to see this is unfolding is on the border with Pakistan.

The road from Kabul east to Jalalabad is an abysmally rutted dirt track that ascends and descends in switchbacks up high mountains, with thousand-foot drops at the road’s edge, then passes down through some parched valleys into a desert strewn with huge boulders. The trip takes a full day. Roadside bombs are not uncommon here: Numerous NGO workers and journalists have been killed on this stretch of road in the past year.

This is Nangarhar province, which juts like a peninsula into Pakistan and contains the infamous Al Qaeda stronghold of the Tora Bora mountain range. Most of the province’s districts are classified as no-go areas for internationals. All the NGOs have left. The place is crawling with US Special Forces, out hunting. When their convoys of Humvees and white Toyota trucks lurch past on the dusty back roads, they look like landlocked pirates, wearing costumes of mismatched camouflage, Afghan scarves, beards and assorted bush hats.

A security expert in Jalalabad tells me that there’s been at least one IED attack every day for a month, and that the local US garrison, or Provincial Reconstruction Team, was recently besieged for five hours straight. Even so, US casualties around here have remained fairly light.

Officially the Taliban are a big problem, but in private, security experts acknowledge that the Taliban and their allies are isolated and under pressure from both US troops in Afghanistan and Pakistani forces across the border. Once backed by the Pakistani state, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are now said to rely only on a network of retired Pakistani intelligence officers.

Although villagers warn that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are around and looking for targets, the insurgency seems to have little support. “They are in Pakistan, but they come into Nangarhar to attack,” says a local journalist. “The people here do not want them.”

On our second day of driving we leave Jalalabad and head northeast into the district of Kuna. This is poppy country, occasionally traversed by Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters but thoroughly controlled by two warlords: Hazrat Ali, the security chief, and Haji Din Mohammed, provincial governor.

In Khakhi village, we meet with a group of four maliks, or village leaders. All of them farm opium poppy and were mujahedeen during the anti-Soviet jihad, but now all speak openly of their hatred for the commanders.

“They have big houses and the best land. They will take a man’s daughter if they want. And what do we have? Nothing,” says Askar Khan, who sits hunched over on a wood and rope cot beneath a grape arbor. “All of us were wounded fighting the Russians. We fought for America, and now we are jobless. That is not good.”

Another man shows me some gruesome scars and says he was taken to Indiana for treatment back when he was fighting the Red Army. Once these mujahedeen liked the United States, but now they are growing resentful. “Why does America give these commanders positions in government?” asks Askar Khan, the chief malik, who is slumped on the cot.

The poppy crop has already been harvested, but some of the local farmers show me big brown blocks of opium and offer me hash. They say that drought and hunger forced them to grow poppy. “Hazrat Ali controls the smuggling,” says one of them. The malik Askar Khan explains, “There are no schools and no clinics in our district. The NGOs just spend money on themselves. When people are hungry they commit sins. If we only grow wheat, we will starve.”

The men allege that Mirwais Yasini, head of Afghanistan’s Counter Narcotics Directorate, has a deal with Hazrat Ali. When the harvest is done, Hazrat Ali tells the farmers to burn their fields, then Mirwais Yasini can tell the British (who are officially charged with running a war on poppy) that progress is being made. Counternarcotics officials in Kabul vigorously deny these charges.

The trip back to Kabul is as slow and dusty as the trip out. After a few hours of driving we see an overloaded passenger bus with luggage stacked on the roof. The vehicle sways and bounces toward us. Then it sways just a bit too far and topples over the edge of the road into a gully below. A cloud of dust rises and momentarily obscures the wreck.

The bus sits on its roof. Three men are trapped beneath it. About a dozen other people lie around in various states of injury: a young man limps by, his crushed foot wrapped in a bloody scarf. An old man lies by the road moaning. The men underneath the bus are dying; the crowd is growing frantic.

“Help! Push the bus! My brother is trapped,” begs a desperate man from down in the gully. The trapped men are migrant laborers, Afghan refugees whose families live in Pakistan. The crowd of men starts pushing the bus back and forth, hoping to tip it one more rotation. But chaos and panic reign, there is no coordination to the effort and the bus weighs too much. A flatbed truck tries to back into an edge of the bus to flip it over but it is no use. The trapped men are being crushed. Someone says one has just died.

The whole debacle is a pathetically fitting, if clichéd, microcosm of Afghanistan’s current state: The bus and these people mean little to the great powers that have appointed themselves masters of this place. Out here in the desert and mountains there is no democracy, no nation building, no NGOs, no American patrols–only an appallingly bad road that once, long ago, was a paved link to the world and one of Afghanistan’s few symbols of modernity and national progress. Now the only sign of something like state power is a local commander’s young gunman with a bayonet on his AK-47. He commandeers a car and orders it to take one of the wounded back to Jalalabad.