Maryam Rahmani was asleep in her parents’ house in Kabul last month when she was woken by loud praying in the street. “Most of us when we heard that thought, ‘This is it, the Taliban have come to the city’,” she said, nervously fingering the orange shawl wrapped round her against the autumn chill.
In fact it was a lunar eclipse and people had come outside to offer special prayers. But Rahmani’s reaction reflects the jumpiness in Kabul as the Taliban move to within 20 minutes’ drive of the Afghan capital.
“Everyone’s nervous, particularly educated women,” said Rahmani, 26, who works at a women’s project and is completing an economics degree at Kabul University. “I’m hurrying to finish my thesis so I can get my diploma in case the Taliban come back. All my friends are applying for Indian visas.”
Nobody seriously thinks the Taliban could take Kabul. The capital is surrounded by mountains, has only a few routes in and remained almost untouched during the Russian occupation. Afghanistan has more than 71,000 foreign troops under the leadership of Nato and the US, neither of which can contemplate defeat.
It is hard to find any Afghan families who hanker after a Taliban regime that banned everything from girls’ schools to television and regarded public amputations and executions as entertainment.
However, the fear among Kabulis is palpable. “There is a sense of dread of return to the dark days of the past,” said a western diplomat.
Nato spokesmen may reel off statistics of schools and clinics built, but even the wildest optimist would be hard put to talk up Afghanistan at present. This year 232 soldiers have been killed, the most since the Taliban fell in 2001, and last year civilian deaths tripled to more than 4,500. The highways, paid for with billions of foreign dollars, are now regarded as out of bounds for foreigners and many Afghans.
“The number of violent incidents has jumped from an average of 700 per month last year to 900-1,000 in the last two months,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan. “I don’t think anyone is contemplating an invasion of Kabul but the Taliban are much closer to the capital – within kilometres.”
The spiralling violence has forced the Bush administration to order a review of Afghan policy. All eyes are now on General David Petraeus, who has just taken over US Central Command, where it is hoped he will work the same magic with Afghanistan as he did with his troop surge in Iraq.
This week he will be in London meeting military commanders and Britain’s ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. He will be told in no uncertain terms that military force alone is not the answer, and America needs to take a lead on development and political negotiations, even with the Taliban, if all is not to be lost.
While the focus has been on the south where British troops are based, and the east where the Americans are concentrated, recent months have seen an alarming shift. According to the UN, the Taliban now have a significant presence in five of the six provinces surrounding Kabul. On Highway One, the main road leading south from the capital, you have to drive for only 20 minutes before coming across craters in the road where an improvised explosive device has detonated. Two weeks ago the governor of Logar and two of his bodyguards were assassinated half an hour from the capital.
On Wednesday a bomb on the edge of the city killed two police and wounded General Ali Shah Paktiawal, the chief criminal investigator, who had gone to investigate the fatal poisoning of three policemen at a checkpoint. One of the bodies had been booby-trapped.
“The security situation overall has worsened,” admitted Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But he said: “It can be turned around – it’s not a lost cause.”
Kabul is calmer than a year ago with fewer suicide bombs, but it is hard to escape the sensation of living in a bubble. Security in the capital has been visibly stepped up over the past year. The Wazir Akbar Khan district favoured by diplomats, aid workers and the odd warlord is a maze of concrete barriers and road blocks.
Thirty-six international private security companies are operating in Kabul and 11 more are setting up, despite having to pay a $300,000 bond to the interior ministry.
The insurgents appear to be targeting charities and aid organisations. Thirty aid workers have been killed this year. Last month three foreign women working for the International Rescue Committee, one of whom was a British-Canadian, were shot dead on a road in Logar province, just outside Kabul.
As one of the few organisations to stay on during the Taliban regime, the UN has traditionally been left alone. But a fortnight ago two doctors vaccinating children were killed in the southern town of Spinboldak by a suicide bomber.
In the midst of this violence voter registration is supposed to get underway next month for presidential elections next summer. “It’s a nightmare,” says one of the UN officials coordinating security.
The four-phased voter registration was supposed to start with the most secure provinces – those around Kabul, including Wardak, Logar, Kapisa and Parwan. But in the few months, since the schedule was drawn up, security has worsened dramatically.
Afghan Logistics, which provides cars to foreigners, considers them no-go areas. In just one month in Wardak 51 trucks were burnt, while in Logar 10 schools have been set on fire. The Afghan Women’s Resource Centre, which runs education projects in Kapisa and Parwan, sends its workers out in burqas, travelling in unmarked cars, and has stopped taking foreign donors on visits.
In most cases the Taliban presence is not open but consists of sending night letters warning people not to collaborate with foreign “infidels” or to send their daughters to school.
“It’s like the bogeyman,” says Haji Ahmed, an agricultural trainer from Logar. “They come out at night and walk through the villages, turning off the music at weddings or going into houses and threatening anyone who works with foreigners.”
According to an American adviser to the energy ministry, four of the country’s 19 regional electricity companies are now run by Taliban. “The Taliban are a fact of life,” said a Canadian development worker in Kandahar. “We have to deal with them or get nothing done.”
Through private contractors, ISAF forces are having to pay the Taliban so they can transport fuel and water supplies. The company providing fuel to the British headquarters at Camp Bastion pays more than £2,000 a tanker, of which they estimate a quarter goes to the Taliban.
The Taliban cause has been helped by the number of civilians recently killed in airstrikes by US forces under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom, the mission begun after 9/11 to hunt Al-Qaeda.
Forty seven people were killed at a wedding in Nangahar in July. A few weeks later US forces killed nine police officers in Farah province. Last month between 30 and 90 people were killed in US bombings in Azizabad, apparently the result of false information.
Even so it is astonishing that a movement so reviled seven years ago could have regained so much influence. “The people are caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Dr Ashraf Ghani, who was finance minister from 2002-4. “As the government cannot protect them against the threat of the Taliban, they have to opt for an insurance policy of not blocking them.”
Ghani has spent the past few months travelling round the country and says the Taliban revival is a result of the weakness and corruption of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “Karzai had never even run a two-man office before he became president,” he says. “What people want is order so they can manage their lives. Instead they have uncertainty and corruption where just a few become obscenely wealthy.”
Ghani, who many expect to run for president, has sent his wife to Washington for security and he predicts a wave of political assassinations in the coming year.
Afghanistan last year suffered its harshest winter in living memory, followed by severe drought. This, along with rising food prices, has seen the cost of wheat quadruple.
Colonel Abdul Karim, director of procurement for the Afghan army, says the government and world need to act quickly. “The government needs to find work for these people so they don’t have economic problems and time on their hands to think whether to support the Taliban or the government.”
The frustration that development is lagging behind military gains is a view shared in ISAF. “There’s nobody here who thinks we’re going to have a military victory, this is not what we’re aiming at,” says the ISAF’s Blanchette. “Governance is the steepest hill we have to climb. We’re still spending a whole lot more on defence rather than on improving quality of life and that has to change.”