By Dylan Welch and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - On a warm, late August evening in Kabul, a long line of black, armoured four-wheel-drives rolled into a palatial compound owned by Abdul Rashid Dostum, an infamous Afghan warlord turned political powerbroker.
Some of the country's most powerful men alighted and slipped through Dostum's front door for a meeting that marked the first tentative step to maintain stability as the conflict-torn nation faces a turning-point next year, when Western troops withdraw after over a decade of war against Taliban insurgents.
For much of the 1990s, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanistan was wracked by a civil war between various warlords fighting for territory. The Taliban, a movement born in Afghan refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan, swept into Kabul in 1996, taking advantage of the disarray.
Dostum's meeting appeared aimed at preventing a return to the chaos of the 1990s, which would fritter away the gains of over a decade of intensive Western engagement in Afghanistan and billions of dollars in aid.
On one side were supporters of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai. On the other were Dostum and various northern chieftains who have clashed with each other for decades, but have come together to oppose the Taliban.
The aim - to find a consensus candidate for the April election that will replace Karzai when he steps down. For most of his two five-year terms, Karzai has worked with the northern warlords, and included some in his cabinet, but the partnership has been shaky at best.
There was no understanding on a consensus candidate at the meeting, but efforts are continuing, participants said.
"Some of our well-known national figures who are interested in running in the election are keen to reach an understanding with this grand alliance of our voter banks," said Mohammad Atta Noor, a powerful provincial governor who stood side by side with Dostum at the meeting despite years of feuding with him over control of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Others in the room included Mohammad Mohaqeq, an ethnic Hazara leader, and Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the guerrilla leader killed by al Qaeda militants two days before the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
All four were part of the Northern Alliance that banded with U.S.-backed troops to invade Kabul later that year and overthrow the Taliban government when the Islamists refused to surrender Osama bin Laden.
Now, the Northern Alliance commanders have formed an alliance called Etihad, hoping at the first instance to avoid discord amongst themselves. They were aiming at the meeting to include the Karzai camp in the alliance, and come up with a consensus presidential candidate.
Those invited to Dostum's home included Karzai's brother and presidential hopeful Qayum, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan turned domestic political heavyweight Zalmay Khalilzad and two former Karzai ministers, Ali Ahmad Jalali and Mohammad Hanif Atmar.
Earlier in the summer, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a former Islamist warlord reputed to have invited Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda to Afghanistan, was being spoken of as a consensus presidential candidate but he was not present at the meeting.
The problem for Karzai's men is the unsavoury reputation of the warlords, and their fickle support. Dostum has played a particularly controversial role, and the United States and the United Nations have both alleged he was involved in the suffocation and shooting deaths of thousands of Taliban prisoners-of-war in shipping containers in the first weeks of the American-led war.
"Many of our so-called political leaders are armed to the teeth and have huge political, financial and military strength as well as the support of large groups of voters," said Kabul-based political analyst Faizullah Jalal.
"To some extent they have taken the people hostage," he said.
But the coterie of old-style Afghan warlords remains hugely powerful, despite more than a decade of democratic advancement and a massive multi-billion dollar international investment in Afghanistan's political system.
Analysts say warlords in the Northern Alliance could control in excess of two million votes. About 10 million people are eligible to vote nationwide, according to U.N. statistics.
Voter turnout in the east and south is expected to be low due to fears of the Taliban. That means the support of men like Dostum, Mohaqeq and Noor is highly sought after by would-be presidential candidates.
Another of Karzai's brothers, Mahmoud, who has been spearheading Qayum's tilt for the presidency, confirmed the president's camp was keen to woo Dostum and other Northern Alliance leaders.
"They are still negotiating," he said.
When asked if working with men like Dostum was a good idea, Mahmoud said: "You can work with all kinds of people."
"The idea is not to divide (the country). Dostum, he is being followed by a million people. And out of respect for the million we must work with him," Mahmoud said.
Dostum has long rejected the allegations against him, and both he and Noor declined comment on the political jostling.
In an interview, Mohaqeq dismissed talk of Dostum's alleged history as a warlord.
"Those who say these things about Dostum, they also want to get his support," he said. "At the moment all the candidates are trying to get Dostum's support."
Candidate nominations for the election are due by October 6, with campaigning expected to begin towards the end of the year.
Following the Dostum meeting, discussions were held over the next two nights at the homes of Mohaqeq and Massoud.
On August 29, Noor, Mohaqeq, Dostum and other northern leaders held a ceremony attended by as many as 2,000 people at Kabul's expensive Khalij Hotel to formally announce the creation of Etihad.
In the end, the pro-Karzai camp did not join Etihad.
Despite that, Noor said they remained willing to embrace the pro-Karzai group.
"The doors for negotiation are still open and we are keen to have Khalilzad, Jalali, Qayum Karzai and Atmar as part of this alliance," Noor said after the event.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)