Now that the Northern Alliance has captured Mazar-i-Sharif, the U.S.-led military campaign soon will test how much of the effort can be entrusted to its Afghan allies on the ground and how much of it U.S. forces will have to take up themselves.
The willingness of northern Afghan warlords to wage the grueling ground battles needed to smoke Al Qaeda from its caves will test Afghanistan's historical tendencies to shift allegiances without notice.
The Soviets learned this in the 1980s with disastrous results when they got caught between a Northern Alliance, which they believed was their ally, and the Taliban militias in the south. The two sides had made a devil's pact with one another.
Both sides turned against the Soviets.
The question of rebel fidelity to the United States' war effort, and therefore to U.S. ground forces, was first raised in a meeting of Afghanistan's loya jirga, or traditional Afghan assembly, several weeks ago in Peshawar, Pakistan.
These meetings took place without a representative of the exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah, the choice of the Western alliance to head an interim government in Kabul.
Pakistani fundamentalists who served alongside the Afghan moujahedeen during the Soviet occupation recounted firsthand accounts of private meetings at the Peshawar session to me recently.
They said that reconciliation between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance was seriously debated as an alternative to a Zaher Shah-led interim government in the event that the U.S. bombing raids did not achieve their objective before the Muslim holy month, Ramadan, begins in about a week.
Contemplating betrayal of U.S. troops rather than partnering with them, even with the dramatically increased pace of U.S. bombings, may still materialize as a Machiavellian war strategy if winter sets in before the Northern Alliance is able to secure Kabul.
Credible reports from the region indicate that Northern Alliance warlords are secretly supplying the Taliban with war munitions at hyperinflated prices in a bid to keep all their options open.
After all, power, no matter how small a slice, is the all-consuming end for these notoriously shifty characters.
Sacrificing a few thousand American and British soldiers to cut a behind-the-veil deal with the Taliban would be considered a justifiable means to that end.
In the scenario considered in secret at the Peshawar session, after U.S. ground troops enter Afghanistan en masse, an Iranian-style political coalition would be announced.
U.S. troops would become bargaining chips--information about their locations on the ground would be traded by the northern warlords in exchange for the new power-sharing arrangement.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar (or his designated heir) would be elevated to the status of supreme religious leader, akin to Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The relatively moderate Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president of Afghanistan, would be brought back as a compromise head of state.
Moderate Pashtuns would fill key posts in government.
The Al Qaeda terrorist infrastructure would go deeper underground, with some marginal evidence provided that Osama bin Laden's operatives were no longer "guests" of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden himself might even take temporary refuge in northern tribal areas of Pakistan where Taliban and pro-jihad sympathies run high.
The rationale for pursuing U.S. antiterror objectives in the region might evaporate in the smoke-and-mirrors shuffle, and perhaps even in the mind of Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf is coming under increased pressure by powerful pro-Taliban quarters inside the country in the days leading up to Ramadan.
The problem with this scenario is its use of American troops as the catalyst for political change.
Nothing would damage the future course of the U.S. war on terrorism more than the specter of U.S. soldiers being ambushed in caves and dragged through Kabul's streets at Christmastime by Taliban guerrillas who learned their locations from the very warlords in the north they once defeated to take control of the capital city.
The United States' military strategists must gauge their friends and foes in the region with great care at this moment in the campaign.
Relying too heavily on Northern Alliance guerillas to further U.S. ground objectives is a recipe for disaster.
The U.S. mission is to end the Taliban's reign and Al Qaeda's existence in Afghanistan quickly and efficiently, not to install one militant regime for another.
No political solution can or should be implemented as long as a trace of the Taliban or Al Qaeda exists in Afghanistan.
If this means U.S. ground forces have to go it alone, so be it.