Abdullah Abdullah (C), who challenged Karzai in 2009 election, sits near the coffin of slain police chief, General Mohammed Daoud Daoud, who was killed in a suicide bombing in Taloqan, capital of Takhar province on May 29, 2011. (GUL RAHIM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Stunned by a string of assassinations and fearful that President Hamid Karzai will cede too much ground to the Taliban in peace negotiations, his ethnic rivals are struggling to form a coalition that will give them more say in the peace process and offer a credible alternative to his administration.

Their effort has foundered despite high-profile leaders, a strong presence in parliament, a flurry of meetings and a large rally in the capital last month. Even as Karzai’s domestic popularity dwindles and his hostility increases toward Western forces fighting the Taliban, he remains largely unchallenged.

“The president always welcomes opposition voices, and they have every right to express their opinions,” said Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Karzai. He acknowledged that there are “people who fear the peace process” or want to “make it into an ethnic issue,” but he insisted that there was nothing to worry about. “There are red lines we will not cross,” he said.

The opposition’s struggles illustrate the broader problems that beset Afghan politics a decade after Taliban rule ended. The system is a modern democracy on paper, but it is still dominated by individual and tribal loyalties, while political institutions remain weak and parties are based on personality cults rather than ideas.

There is constant talk of burying hatchets, but ethnic identity still looms large, injecting mistrust into national priorities such as the peace process. Karzai comes from the Pashtun south; opponents from the former Northern Alliance, which once fought the Taliban, represent a mix of minority groups from the north. Within the opposition, there are generational divisions, grudges dating to the civil war of the 1990s and the temptation of lucrative government posts.

“There are many personalities involved, but no one has been able to truly mobilize people,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst and former aide to the late Northern Alliance militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

“There is a lot of talk, but there is no catalyst, no agenda, no vision,” Mir said. “It is still all about self-interest and individual power, so Karzai can easily keep the opposition fragmented and weak.”

Failure to come together

In the past month, opposition leaders have been badly scared by several targeted Taliban slayings of officials in the relatively peaceful north, including Kunduz, Takhar, Bamian and Herat provinces. The killings have prompted fears of a civil war between northern ethnic groups and the southern-based Taliban as international forces begin to withdraw in the next year.

Most shocking was the death of Gen. Daud Daud, a senior police official and former Northern Alliance commander who was killed in a suicide bombing May 28 in the capital of Takhar province. On Friday, to reinforce their message, insurgents bombed a memorial service for Daud in Kunduz, killing at least three people. Yet analysts said that even the spate of deadly attacks has failed to unify or galvanize northern leaders.

“After General Daud was assassinated, I thought surely something would happen, people would come out,” Mir said. “There were a lot of speeches, but nothing came of it. There is a lot of tension, and people now see real threats to their own lives, but they don’t know whom to trust. If a Talib can come all the way from Kandahar and plant a bomb in a government building in Kunduz, someone there must have been collaborating.”

The north does not lack prominent leaders. They include Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who challenged Karzai in the 2009 election; former militia bosses Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum and Mohammad Mohaqiq; former prime minister Burhanuddin Rabbani, who heads the government peace council; former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh; and former vice president Ahmad Zia Massoud.

But many of those men have little in common except antipathy toward Karzai and the Taliban. Some are working for Karzai’s government or could be persuaded to return. There are rifts between an older generation of ethnic strongmen and younger professional activists. Many opposition legislators are worried that a special court set up by Karzai to investigate voting fraud and corruption could cost them their seats.

As a result, efforts to unify the opposition — including a bid by Abdullah to broaden his electoral Coalition for Change and Hope, a separate coalition-building initiative promoted by Massoud and a series of rallies led by Saleh — have failed to produce a formal announcement or list of supporters. In interviews this week, several legislators mentioned as likely backers of Abdullah said they had not made up their minds.

A new generation

Fazel Sangchariki, a spokesman for Abdullah’s coalition, said the group worries that Karzai will make too many concessions to the Taliban, which shares his ethnic roots and whose members he has often called “sons of the soil.” They also fear that Karzai will undermine legislative opponents by holding a gathering of tribal elders to endorse his plans for peace negotiations and future relations with the West.

Massoud said he hopes his coalition partners can agree on an agenda and soon emerge as an “important force in national politics.” It is crucial, he said, to replace Afghan tribal politics with a modern party system and to shift from the old generation of warlords to younger, more educated leaders. His effort, too, has failed to produce results.

“The Afghan people are not happy, but they want to see new faces and new vision,” Mir said. “As long as this is still about getting half a dozen power brokers together in a room, it will be a waste of time. Karzai will keep the opposition fragmented, and Afghanistan’s political crisis will just go on.”

Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.