Haji Mohammad Qasim Khan is never far from his pistol. He lounges on a floor cushion and it's there on a window sill - within easy reach. He shifts to a sofa when tea is served with dried mulberries and walnuts, and a servant boy glides by, stuffing the pistol into a gap in the upholstery.
As Qasim excuses himself, wandering off to check a thermostat by the door, he slips the weapon into the ample folds of his dun-coloured robes. At 31, he is young to be carrying the weighty turban of a tribal elder, but Qasim is acutely aware of the risks.
His father, Jan Mohammed Khan, dubbed JMK by the Americans and feared as much as he was revered, was one floor above where we are having tea in the family's Kabul home when his guards were conned by two gunmen. They posed as students on hard times who were after a handout. When they got up close, they opened fire, ending the old man's long, brutal existence - but not before JMK had given them money.
It was summer 2011 and Jan Mohammad Khan's demise, amid a wave of attacks dubbed the "messages of death", rocked the Kabul government and triggered a power struggle that still plays out in a remote corner of Afghanistan called Oruzgan. These days it is provincial police chief Matiullah Khan, JMK's protege and a distant cousin of the risk-averse young Qasim, who rules the roost in Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan's provincial capital and home to just 10,000 mostly illiterate people.
Known as MK, his key rivals have been eliminated and he has become bigger than the government. MK is disdainful of the elaborate plans of the international community to set up a system of strong provincial administrations to be cogs in the wheels of a central machine in Kabul. Instead, he is locking in his own parallel structures, at the same time as he rakes in millions from his Australian-backed highway-security scam.
Similarly, off in a far corner of the province, a district called Khas Oruzgan, the American-backed warlord Hakim Shujoyi runs amok - killing, raping, looting. Seemingly getting away with it, Shujoyi is just as contemptuous as the more sure-footed, 40-ish Matiullah of the grand designs of the foreigners. For all the differences between them, these are two strongmen who have risen on new money and might, and not the traditional measures - numbers of tribesmen and acres. Together they encapsulate the triumph of misguided coalition strategies and warlord greed over what was to be the West's fragile gift to Afghanistan - democracy.
There is no sense of Jeffersonian governance in Oruzgan. Turnout for the 2010 elections was the lowest in all of Afghanistan, 6.4 per cent. Such was voter apathy among the majority Pashtuns that an enthusiastic turnout by the minority Hazaras meant that Khas Oruzgan was poised to be represented in parliament only by members of its oppressed Hazara minority. So an Afghan solution was found and the world blinked indifferently - the Hazara votes were shredded. Amid such expediency, it doesn't do to get caught between the likes of Matiullah Khan and Hakim Shujoyi. And after the bulk of foreign forces are withdrawn next year, ordinary Afghans harbour great fears for the future. They expect that blood will be spilt as the contest for a slice of a smaller economic pie will be even more bitterly fought. Those who can, pin their hopes on a visa to Australia or anywhere that is not Afghanistan.
One of those hopefuls is Hammedullah Hammedie, who finds himself at a crossroads in the new Afghanistan. Moving between the power struggles among local tribes and the more enlightened world of the heavily fortified Australian bunker that serves as the nerve centre for the international commitment to Oruzgan, Hammedie is a construction contractor who confesses to weeping for his nation.
He should be laughing. His company has won Australian reconstruction contracts worth millions. For all that, he writes off the whole Western adventure in his homeland as great expectations dashed. "People are so disappointed - the promises have not been fulfilled," he says, sitting in an office adorned with a framed Australian certificate of appreciation for his work. "This is not a democracy," he says.
This is a man who embodies the Afghan sense of self - what his family means to those around him, what he can contribute and, ahem, what he might take for himself on the way through. He worries about security. "I have a nice house and 13 fine cars," he says. "But I can't go outside my family compound because everywhere is too dangerous. I was safer as a child, riding a bicycle in the village."
Then tracing an arc from Tarin Kowt to Kabul, the contractor sees "prostitutes and hotel servants" in what serves as a national parliament; a bunch of incompetents hijacking a bureaucracy in which merit counts for naught; and a pointy-elbowed band of business thieves who have been licensed as a new tribal elite.
"They've given our country to those whose hands are still red with the blood of the people," he says, as he laments the failure at the heart of the Western presence in Afghanistan: the foreigners' empowerment of a ruthless warlord class that Afghans had dared to hope had been banished under double sledge-hammer blows - first, by the Taliban when it ran the country; and, second, by the foreign invasion of 2001 that sent the fundamentalists' Islamist regime packing.
This is the context in which Hammedie's endorsement of Matiullah Khan, as a modern warlord whose time and tone are right, serves as a brutal punctuation mark in the Afghanistan debate.
"I look around, and he is the only person here who serves his people well," says Hammedie. "He's the warlord we need. I was here through the mujahideen wars - Matiullah is better than all the others put together."
There is no doubt that in Tarin Kowt, Matiullah Khan runs the show. Nominally, the provincial governorship sits above him in the pecking order. The incumbent, Amir Muhammad Akundzada, was appointed not quite a year ago and already there are rumours his days are numbered as police chief Matiullah eclipses him too.
Observations by the locals are reminders of a reality of life in the new Afghanistan - that the parliament in Kabul and all its symbolism are little more than window-dressing for the West's failed experiment in exporting democracy. "Matiullah Khan is so powerful," cautions young female MP Reihana Azad. "There will be power struggles, but MK will not go easily; he won't go quietly."
Despite celebration around the world that Afghans had voted, real power in Oruzgan is in the hands of people with a reputation for using violence. "This is the way it works," explains an NGO officer versed in local affairs. "There is no law, but if you have a network and you can be useful to the foreign forces and if you have patrons in Kabul, then nobody can touch you."
On the bald slopes of the Hindu Kush in Char Chino district, a day's rough driving from Tarin Kowt, Nader, a Kuchi nomad, has no comprehension of how his image is captured in a camera. Two valleys to the north, animal herder Shahib Jan cannot get his head around the concept of a newspaper, much less the internet. But among the elders sipping tea on a Saturday morning in the district centre at Shahidi Hassas, the summation of Afghanistan's predicament is as erudite as any paper published on the issue by the think tanks in Washington.
These road trips in early February, hundreds of kilometres over 10 days, reveal the stunning beauty of craggy mountains where the light and mood change by the minute. Unseen, but seeping through villages tucked into the folds of each valley, is a cultural and political force little altered after more than a decade in the embrace of what the Afghan people were assured would be the civilising arms of the West. Afghanistan's first language is still violence. Mass-casualty bombings and multiple beheadings, raping and looting, kidnappings and land grabs, are frequent enough to communicate to the country's fearful millions that their destiny remains in the uncaring hands of others.
That the brutality happened last year, or two years earlier, does not diminish the threat in today's retelling of villagers rounded up and murdered, some by the weight of great boulders dropped on their prone bodies; others by a vehicle driven over their head. Or of rape as a weapon - with an added signature punishment of the attackers using their teeth to tear at the flesh of their victims' breasts.
High-tech or crude, violence is violence. Perpetrated by foreigners, Taliban or tribesmen, it's a language understood too well by all. Most recently last week, by the family of seven-year-old Toor Jan and his six-year-old brother, Odood, who were killed as they collected firewood near Shahidi Hassas. Australian forces in the area had "become aware of an imminent threat" and called for American air cover. The Americans mistakenly bombed the brothers and their donkeys, mistaking them for insurgents.
Neither Canberra nor Washington will admit it publicly, but deliberately or by default their Afghan venture, now winding down after 12 bruising years, has delivered the 30 million people of this country into the arms of the same warlords whose remorseless violence in the early 1990s convinced the Afghan people, if only for a time, that the Taliban were a better bet.
Australian officials are guardedly optimistic in speaking about the venture. Adrian Lochrin, who recently finished an 18-month stint as leader of the Tarin Kowt Provincial Reconstruction Team, acknowledges that the local political culture will be slow in modernising - "long-running tribal disputes are part of the landscape," he says.
Dust hangs in the Tarin Kowt air. The bazaar is livelier than during any previous visit by Fairfax. There are more shops. They sell a wider range of goods to a wider range of shoppers.
Posters on the town's walls make clear who is the boss. There's the President, Hamid Karzai, who pulls strings from Kabul; and there's the fabled Jan Mohammad Khan, the former governor, now dead; and then there's Police Chief Matiullah Khan.
By area and population, Oruzgan is about the same size as greater Sydney or Melbourne and is home to as many people as the ACT - about 400,000. These days, it is a province on the road to nowhere. But it counts as part of the southern belt that has been the historic home to Afghanistan's Pashtun kings. It is a backwoods that is home to very conservative people. Muslim hospitality guarantees they are warm and welcoming - one on one. On a deeper level, however, these people are suspicious of the outside world and perhaps even more so of each other.
Starved of institutional resources, Oruzgan has played a central role in Afghanistan's modern history. Taliban leader Mullah Omar married into a Dihrawud family and many of his fighters are Oruzganis. But Oruzgan also served as the stomping ground on which Karzai raised his revolt against Taliban rule in 2001.
It is this fact that leaves Afghanistan analysts scratching their heads - why, they ask, if there is such loyalty to Karzai in Oruzgan, is the province so unmanageable?
Former provincial police chief Juma Gul Heimat tries to peel away the onion layers, asking, if Karzai and his cronies were such hotshots, why did it take eight years to break the Taliban siege on Chinartu, on the province's southern flank. The implication is that some of the loyalists were not as loyal as they might have been presumed to be; that they were happily cutting their own side deals with the insurgents. But Juma Gul gives up - "the problems in Oruzgan are extreme. If I tell you all, you'll get a headache."
Equally perplexing in a society in which, as it was put to Fairfax, "every man stands for his tribe and dies for his tribe", is why the Australian and American invaders put all their money on the fourth or fifth strongest of the tribes - Karzai's Popalzai. "And they're being left to run the joint," says an incredulous analyst.
In Oruzgan, that meant the three biggest tribal groups were disenfranchised - the Achekzai, the Noorzai and various groups in a confederation known as the Ghilzai. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Noorzai and Ghilzai, in particular, are strongly represented in the fighting ranks of the Taliban.
These are the tribal flaws that Canberra has buttressed in a conflict in which the Taliban are just part of the problem. Beneath the surface, between tribes and within tribes, are hard-fought power struggles, particularly when the elders feel disenfranchised by a lack of government support. By contrast, the warlords have always done their own thing, taking what they can, even as the state and the coalition co-opt them.
These contests will have a significant bearing on the shape and character of the new Afghanistan, which many here fear will resemble the charnel house of 1992-94 after the Soviet retreat. Afghans who believe in democracy feel cheated by the foreign support for these worst elements of Afghan politics.
"These guys were dead when the foreigners came, but you've brought them back to life," says an embittered Raihana Azad, the young woman MP. "They will never surrender power, especially if the international community abandons us next year. They accept no opposition." Here she touches on something even more primitive at work in the local power plays - a chilling cheapening of human life.
"It's very easy to kill people in Oruzgan," Azad says. "It's kind of usual to eliminate your opponents. And it all works perfectly - because the Taliban get the blame and the Taliban don't mind, do they? And for the first few years they also were tricking coalition forces to do their killing for them. Him? Oh yes, So-and-So definitely Taliban!"
Softly spoken Nabi Khan Tokhi is a senior man in the marginalised but substantial Ghilzai tribe. "We have nothing, no positions in government," he complains. "All power is with the Popalzai and as long as we have this imbalance, there will be no security in Oruzgan. We all fought the Taliban - I had 4000 fighters out there, so it's not fair that we're all sidelined by one tribe that uses its power for its own ends."
After 12 gruelling years and despite all this talk of "next year", the international military withdrawal already is under way. The Australians have retreated from their forward bases to Tarin Kowt, and on the rutted tracks and rocky riverbeds that serve as roads, Fairfax encountered several big convoys hauling US gear southwards, towards Kandahar. With the departure of the foreigners comes rising local anger.
"They did nothing against the warlords who wrecked this country - they supported them, kept them in power," an otherwise mild-mannered local says in an explosion of rage at the Australians and the Americans. "Our democracy probably is unsustainable because they did not treat the infection in our body politick - the warlords and the interference from neighbouring countries."
As we tumble down the Chambark Valley, driving back to Tarin Kowt, the light in the late afternoon is like liquid gold. Along the way, we meet Haji Abdul Manan, who commands six of Matiullah Khan's security checkpoints - Haji Abdul's head is full of figures. "In the past four years nine of my men were killed by the Taliban - four of them beheaded; 17 were injured; and we defused 52 roadside bombs. The Americans came through a few days ago to take back their stuff - 22 bulletproof vests, 23 AK-47s and two sets of night-vision goggles. What do we do now?"
The elders turn out to meet Fairfax - dauntingly, as many as 300 at a time. On meeting foreigners, it is their way to crowd in, but mostly to listen as one or two appointed spokesmen make their case.
In Chora, 30-odd older men listen as Sadiq Khan explains: "They are cheating us by taking their weapons home. That's what the Russians did, so if you want a repeat of what happened on their departure, then sure - leave as you seem to be leaving."
Such is the fear of looming chaos that delegations of elders from some smaller tribes in Oruzgan are now finding their way to Kabul, with pleas for Karzai to act to keep Australian forces in the province. "It'll be just like the mujahideen wars," says former police chief and ex-communist Juma Gul Heimat, warning of bad behaviour by the tribal powerbrokers. "If this opportunity is lost, Afghanistan will be lost to history."
Separately, Juma Gul warns of an inability by the locals to withstand a resurgent Taliban. He warns: "Khas Oruzgan and Char Chino will not last more than five minutes - the Taliban will want the people's food and money." Weighing the threats, Juma Gul opts for the Taliban as the lesser of the evils. "The Taliban is more dangerous, but the past excesses of the elders are worse than anything the Taliban has done."
Given their fear for the fate of women in the absence of any Western pressure, it's no surprise that female MPs hedge their bets. "You can't say that the bad behaviour of the powerbrokers is a bigger problem that the Taliban - both are bad," says Azad. Her colleague, Hilla Achekzai, is not quite as dark: "Maybe we don't go back entirely to what life was like before the foreigners came. But, yep, we'll be going backwards."
Much of the expert critique on Afghanistan hinges on the failure of international forces to curb corruption. One describes the international aid billions as "a tsunami of illicit cash sloshing" through the Afghan economy. Another offers this blunt assessment: "There were four things the coalition had to do - counter corruption, contain abuse and reconcile the people to living with each other. There's not been much progress on any of those three. But on the fourth, counterinsurgency, we've been great - we've destroyed the insurgency three times over and every time it's come back because we haven't done the first three."
Reihana Azad has a ready answer when asked what the West might have done better. "They brought a system of democracy," she begins, "but they failed to support the people who actually believed the ideology, who wanted to see it work; instead, they invalidated it. They needed to invest in the system, not in the powerbrokers.
"If they had supported the education of the young and genuinely fostered political parties and civil society, they would be seeing the fruits of their investment by now. They had many opportunities to make things good, but they backed the warlords - and the good professional people of Afghanistan are left behind, because warlords only appoint warlords."
This is a point at which the contractor Hammedie comes close to tears. He is incensed the Australians did not show the same attention to detail in building an Afghan democracy as they demanded of Hammedie and his staff when it came to adhering to contract specifications. "They taught us well when it was about building; less so when it came to democracy," he says.
It's no surprise Fairfax hears little by way of sympathy for the 39 Australians who have died here - too many Afghans have died with them. But given Hammedie's family will live well for years to come on the Australian reconstruction contracts awarded to his firm, I ask him to help explain what has been the return on Canberra's sacrifice of blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
He answers in chilling, unsentimental language. "All a waste of time," he says. "Afghans will never be at peace with this democracy thing. If the money was spent in Oruzgan for democracy then it was wasted. If the blood was spilled for a merit-based society it was wasted too."
What about the buildings? Surely they represent a bricks and mortar investment in the future? But no, his relentless critique then invokes an Afghan proverb: you need to teach a wolf how to mend, he already knows how to tear. "Don't worry about that," he says with rising sarcasm. "We Afghans have found it difficult to build, but we've had lots of experience at destruction. Everything will be destroyed …
"It will be like when the Russians pulled out. The mujahideen commanders took to the buildings with axes and hammers. They ripped the electrical wiring from the walls and ceilings and the steel bars from the roofs.
"I'm not joking - you'll see nothing. I'll be leaving the country one week before the Australians do."