As he leaves Afghanistan, our correspondent reflects on a failed state cursed by brutal fundamentalism and rampant corruption
The collapse of Afghanistan is closer than the world believes. Kandahar is in Taliban hands β all but a square mile at the centre of the city β and the first Taliban checkpoints are scarcely 15 miles from Kabul. Hamid Karzai's deeply corrupted government is almost as powerless as the Iraqi cabinet in Baghdad's "Green Zone"; lorry drivers in the country now carry business permits issued by the Taliban which operate their own courts in remote areas of the country.
The Red Cross has already warned that humanitarian operations are being drastically curtailed in ever larger areas of Afghanistan; more than 4,000 people, at least a third of them civilians, have been killed in the past 11 months, along with scores of Nato troops and about 30 aid workers. Both the Taliban and Mr Karzai's government are executing their prisoners in ever greater numbers. The Afghan authorities hanged five men this month for murder, kidnap or rape β one prisoner, a distant relative of Mr Karzai, predictably had his sentence commuted β and more than 100 others are now on Kabul's death row.
This is not the democratic, peaceful, resurgent, "gender-sensitive" Afghanistan that the world promised to create after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Outside the capital and the far north of the country, almost every woman wears the all-enshrouding burkha, while fighters are now joining the Taliban's ranks from Kashmir, Uzbekistan, Chechnya and even Turkey. More than 300 Turkish fighters are now believed to be in Afghanistan, many of them holding European passports.
"Nobody I know wants to see the Taliban back in power," a Kabul business executive says β anonymity is now as much demanded as it was before 2001 β "but people hate the government and the parliament which doesn't care about their security. The government is useless. With so many internally displaced refugees pouring into Kabul from the countryside, there's mass unemployment β but of course, there are no statistics.
"The 'open market' led many of us into financial disaster. Afghanistan is just a battlefield of ideology, opium and political corruption. Now you've got all these commercial outfits receiving contracts from people like USAID. First they skim off 30 to 50 per cent for their own profits β then they contract out and sub-contract to other companies and there's only 10 per cent of the original amount left for the Afghans themselves."
Afghans working for charitable organisations and for the UN are telling their employers that they are coming under increasing pressure to give information to the Taliban and provide them with safe houses. In the countryside, farmers live in fear of both sides in the war. A very senior NGO official in Kabul β again, anonymity was requested β says both the Taliban and the police regularly threaten villagers. "A Taliban group will arrive at a village headman's door at night β maybe 15 or 16 of them β and say they need food and shelter. And the headman tells the villagers to give them food and let them stay at the mosque. Then the police or army arrive in the day and accuse the villagers of colluding with the Taliban, detain innocent men and threaten to withhold humanitarian aid. Then there's the danger the village will be air-raided by the Americans."
In the city of Ghazni, the Taliban ordered all mobile phones to be switched off from 5pm until 6am for fear that spies would use them to give away guerrilla locations. The mobile phone war may be one conflict the government is winning. With American help the Interior Ministry police can now track and triangulate calls. Once more, the Americans are talking about forming "tribal militias" to combat the Taliban, much as they did in Iraq and as the Pakistani authorities have tried to do on the North West Frontier. But the tribal lashkars of the Eighties were corrupted by the Russians and when the system was first tried out two years ago β it was called the Auxiliary Police Force β it was a fiasco. The newly-formed constabulary stopped showing up for work, stole weapons and turned themselves into private militias.
"Now every time a new Western ambassador arrives in Kabul, they dredge it all up again," another NGO official says in near despair. "'Oh,' they proclaim, 'let's have local militias β what a bright idea.' But that will not solve the problem. The country is subject to brigandage as well as the cruelty of the Taliban and the air raids which Afghans find so outrageous. The international community has got to stop spinning and do some fundamental thinking which should have been done four or five years ago."
What this means to those Westerners who have spent years in Kabul is simple. Is it really the overriding ambition of Afghans to have "democracy"? Is a strong federal state possible in Afghanistan? Is the international community ready to take on the warlords and drug barons who are within Mr Karzai's own government? And β most important of all β is development really about "securing the country"? The tired old American adage that "where the Tarmac ends, the Taliban begins" is untrue. The Taliban are mounting checkpoints on those very same newly-built roads.
The Afghan Minister of Defence has 65,000 troops under his dubious command but says he needs 500,000 to control Afghanistan. The Soviets failed to contain the country even when they had 100,000 troops here with 150,000 Afghan soldiers in support. And as Barack Obama prepares to send another 7,000 US soldiers into the pit of Afghanistan, the Spanish and Italians are talking of leaving while the Norwegians may pull their 500 troops out of the area north of Heart. Repeatedly, Western leaders talk of the "key" β of training more and more Afghans to fight in the army. But that was the same "key" which the Russians tried β and it did not fit the lock.
"We" are not winning in Afghanistan. Talk of crushing the Taliban seems as bleakly unrealistic as it has ever been. Indeed, when the President of Afghanistan tries to talk to Mullah Omar β one of America's principal targets in this wretched war β you know the writing is on the wall. And even Mullah Omar didn't want to talk to Mr Karzai.
Partition is the one option that no one will discuss β giving the southern part of Afghanistan to the Taliban and keeping the rest β but that will only open another crisis with Pakistan because the Pashtuns, who form most of the Taliban, would want all of what they regard as "Pashtunistan"; and that would have to include much of Pakistan's own tribal territories. It will also be a return to the "Great Game" and the redrawing of borders in south-west Asia, something which β history shows β has always been accompanied by great bloodshed.