KABUL, Afghanistan -- The special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan defended America's alliance with local warlords Friday, saying they are necessary in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
However, critics say those ties have undermined the current administration and may slow Afghan leader Hamid Karzai's ability to extend his authority after the new government emerges from this week's grand council.
"The reality ... is that much of the power at the present time is in the hands of local leaders, because the center is weak," U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said.
The United States' conflicting missions in Afghanistan -- expelling terrorists while rebuilding the country -- have drawn criticism from its allies, international observers and delegates to the loya jirga, who feel U.S. support for the warlords undermines the democratic institutions that Washington says it wants to build.
"By working with them, they are saying de facto that these warlords are the only real power structure in Afghanistan -- and in a sense this is contributing to broad divisions in this country," said Sam Zarifi of Human Rights Watch.
But Khalilzad said tensions created by the U.S. military's cooperation with regional leaders should diminish as Karzai gains greater control over the country.
Thursday's overwhelming vote to retain Karzai as president in the transitional government has already increased his legitimacy, Khalilzad said.
"Now he has a landslide mandate by his own people, and the opportunity to shape his own administration," he said.
President Bush expressed confidence Friday in Karzai, phoning him from aboard Air Force One to say he was gratified by the election results. The United States had supported his candidacy.
Some delegates to the loya jirga have complained the process is being unduly influenced by warlords who have created what some feel is an atmosphere of intimidation. Among the controversial topics some were afraid to speak out on was the role of Islam in a new government.
Debate over name
On Friday, three Afghan delegates, all former fighters against the Soviets, urged the loya jirga to include the name of Islam in the next government -- making it the transitional Islamic Afghan government. The vast tent of delegates rose to their feet in unison to applaud the calls.
Despite the show of unanimity, some dissenters said Islam had been misapplied in the past -- a reference to the Taliban's strict, austere brand of religion.
Kandahar governor Gul Agha drew jeers when he told the assembly: "The Islamic name should be omitted from the government because in the past it has been misused."
His opinion was shared by other delegates who weren't given the microphone -- and who complained that ordinary delegates were being sidelined by religious and political leaders.