With efforts to disarm private militias faltering four months before scheduled national elections, the government of President Hamid Karzai is trying to appease powerful regional leaders who have repeatedly defied his authority and resisted attempts to dismantle their forces.

With the strong encouragement of U.S. officials, Karzai has retreated from potential armed confrontations with two of Afghanistan's most prominent militia bosses. He recently paid a long-distance courtesy call on one of them, Gov. Ismail Khan of Herat province, and reportedly has been negotiating with the other, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, who is seeking a government post in exchange for decommissioning his tanks and troops.

Some Afghan officials and international observers are critical of Karzai's outreach efforts, saying that rewarding recalcitrant strongmen for the sake of short-term stability could imperil Afghanistan's long-term prospects for democracy.

But U.S. diplomats support the initiative and have become involved in efforts to persuade militia leaders to surrender their weapons and return thousands of their fighters to private life, in exchange for promises of regional economic aid and government positions.

"We can't expect people to give up their weapons and men, and at the same time tell them, 'There is no role for you,' because that will inevitably result in resistance" to the elections, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a recent interview. To "civilianize" warlords requires the "proper balance of carrots and sticks," he said. "There must be a place of honor for those who cooperate."

The Bush administration backs Karzai's transitional government and is widely seen here as eager to ensure his victory at the polls, which have already been delayed three months.

The persistence of autonomous militias is regarded by many Afghans and foreign analysts as the most serious obstacle to successful elections. Until recently, U.S. and Afghan officials had voiced hopes that the disarmament and demobilization campaign alone would undermine the militia bosses' power before voting takes place.

The program began last fall with a pilot project to disarm 1,000 fighters in northern Kunduz province. It is now being undertaken in six other regions, including the capital, where thousands of fighters loyal to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, another former militia commander, have remained for two years despite U.S. demands that that they withdraw.

At an international donors conference in March, Karzai pledged that the government would reduce nationwide militias by 40 percent and collect all heavy weapons in their possession by the end of June. This week, officials are launching the main phase of the disarmament scheme with a series of ceremonies at military posts around the capital, and they said 800 militia fighters in the Kabul area would be demobilized by Friday.

Altogether, however, only about 6,500 men have been demobilized nationwide. Many commanders have refused to provide lists of their troops and have turned in antiquated weapons. Moreover, Khan and Dostum have resisted cooperating with the program and launched military attacks on rival forces this spring.

"The failure to disarm and demobilize individual warlords and factional militias has sharply undercut progress" in Afghanistan, Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. "Until the bulk of the militias are decommissioned, there is grave risk that the coming elections will be determined by those who control the guns."

Further Threats

American military efforts in Afghanistan, where about 15,000 U.S. troops are deployed, have focused on the threat posed by revived forces from the Taliban, the radical Islamic militia that was toppled in late 2001, and from other armed extremist groups operating along the Pakistani border.

But many Afghans say a greater threat comes from other ethnic militias that opposed the Taliban and are technically part of the government's defense forces. These groups are feared because they plunged the country into chaotic civil war in the 1990s, destroying Kabul and killing tens of thousands of people.

Jean Arnault, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, said this week that the "main danger to the peace process is the return of civil war caused by factional armies." The United Nations' top priority, he said, is "fair and steady demilitarization ahead of the elections. . . . On this point we will be inflexible."

Some Afghan officials say Karzai should challenge the warlords head-on, and that he has missed several chances to do so in recent months.

In March, a bloody confrontation erupted between Khan's forces and those loyal to the central government. A contingent of newly trained Afghan army troops was sent to restore order in an apparent challenge to Khan's authority.

But Khan has continued to defy Karzai's demands that he give up troops, weapons and absolute power in wealthy Herat. He has reportedly demanded a post in a future Karzai government, and the president recently flew to Herat to meet him in a gesture that angered and embarrassed some officials.

A similar scenario unfolded in northern Afghanistan, where Dostum's forces attacked the city of Meymaneh in April. Again, army troops were sent from Kabul, and Dostum eventually withdrew. But the ethnic Uzbek leader has continued to resist disarming and reportedly has demanded a senior military position in return for his cooperation.

"If we had sent more troops, we could have gotten rid of both these warlords, but the international community pressured the government to take a softer approach," complained an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is foolish to negotiate with these people, because they never keep their promises."

Buying Time

Karzai has reached out to other controversial groups as well. Recently he embraced a group of former officials from the Hizb-i-Islami Party once headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a fugitive militia leader who has declared war on the Afghan government. Karzai has also reportedly put out feelers to former Taliban leaders viewed as moderates.

One Afghan official said he was concerned that by making deals with strongmen, the government might buy peace and stability during the election season but jeopardize prospects for building democratic institutions, such as political parties and a civilian-led national army.

"It must be made very clear to those with private armies that they cannot meddle in politics," the official said. "If we do too much bargaining to ensure things go a certain way now, what will happen later? Will we have a government that promotes democracy or one that is dominated by more of the past?"

But other officials said Karzai and his international advisers had decided it was too risky to challenge mercurial leaders such as Dostum and Khan, whose armed actions this spring sent a shiver through foreign donors.

"We can't remove them by force. We don't want to start a war," said a government adviser. "We have to give them something that will allow the elections to happen and avoid tensions. We need to buy time for the [disarmament and demobilization] program to succeed. If it works, in a year's time the warlords as such won't exist anymore."

Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, expressed sympathy for the concerns of Islamic militia leaders who spent years fighting Soviet occupation and Taliban repression -- with support from the United States -- but who now fear being left out in the cold. Instead of "reinforcing their fears" of being marginalized, he said, officials should stress that disarming will earn them new respect.

Khalilzad took issue with critics who say Washington is trying to ensure a smooth and quick election here at any cost. The Bush administration is not "looking to declare victory and go home," he said, adding that the United States had erred by abandoning Afghanistan in 1989 after Soviet troops withdrew.

"It was a mistake we will not make again," he said.

At a news conference Tuesday, Khalilzad said he hoped the disarmament program would soon show "significant progress," adding that the number of militia fighters in Afghanistan was much smaller than initial estimates of 100,000. He reiterated that the militiamen should be given an "appropriate role" in the future to show that their "services have been appreciated."

In the public mind, however, the era of heroic anti-Soviet "freedom fighters" in the 1980s was eclipsed long ago by the era of rapacious militia rule and conflict in the 1990s. Many Afghans believe the militia leaders do not deserve a place in public life, and they express hope that Karzai, who is widely expected to win election, will exclude them from the next government.

An even greater concern is whether Afghanistan's ubiquitous commanders will be able to disrupt or manipulate elections for the lower house of parliament, which is planned for shortly after the presidential vote and viewed as crucial to establishing a balance of power.

Analysts said it would be difficult to prevent intimidation and abuse in the parliamentary vote, especially in remote areas.

The government has enacted several election laws designed to limit political interference by Islamic militias. One law bans any organization with a military wing from forming a political party. Another, not yet finalized, prohibits parties from running slates of parliamentary candidates and requires that all nominees run as individuals, giving more chance to local independents.

But both Afghan and international analysts said it may be impossible to ensure a fair legislative election, partly because voter registration has been extremely slow, with only 2.2 million of an estimated 9.5 million eligible voters registered so far. Guerrilla attacks have sabotaged registration efforts in the south and east, while voter rolls have grown steadily in the north, creating a worrisome imbalance between rival regional and ethnic groups.

"Parliamentary elections are going to be very, very difficult," said a foreign election consultant. The view of militia bosses like Khan and Dostum, the consultant said, is that "democracy is fine for the country, as long as I'm still at the top of my little tree." Yet he also said it might be more sensible to leave the militias in place than to create regional power vacuums and hordes of jobless fighters. If the elections are not handled carefully, he said, "I wouldn't be surprised if we end up in civil war."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, met with the powerful militia leader and provincial governor Ismail Khan in Herat May 10 in a bid to revive a stalled disarmament program and win stability before parliamentary elections.