Taleban feeding on poverty and prejudice
Islamist militia has harnessed hatred and desperation in renewed Afghan jihad
Highway No 5 heading east out of Kabul is at once a symbol of the efforts being made to modernise Afghanistan and renewed attempts to drag the country back into the dark ages.
As you leave the Afghan capital, both sides of the road are lined with newly built compounds housing the United Nations, the Election Commission, the Afghan National Army, the Nato military base, shipping companies such as Maersk and Hanjin, carmakers like Toyota and Hyundai, construction companies servicing Kabul's real estate boom, and an agency for clearing landmines.
But this busy road to Pakistan, partially constructed by a Chinese company, is also now a highway to hell. 'The suicide bombers sent by the Taleban travel on this highway,' said Mukhtar Shah, a student who witnessed last month's suicide bombing of a US embassy convoy on Highway No 5.
Barely a week later, another Taleban insurgent targeted a top Afghan intelligence official inside Kabul, killing himself and three others. Early this month, a car bomber killed four near the new National Assembly.
Suicide attacks were unknown in Afghanistan until recently. But it is a measure of the success of a resurgent Taleban in mobilising people for yet another 'Afghan jihad' that in the first two months of this year, 27 suicide bombings were recorded across the country.
Mullah Dadullah, the ruthless commander behind the Taleban's military revival, said that 1,200 suicide bombers were ready to strike across Afghanistan, a claim dismissed as psychological warfare by an Afghan official.
But the facts are unnerving. Around 4,000 people, a quarter of them civilians, were killed last year as a result of renewed fighting in the south, and a string of 140 suicide attacks. Already this year, the death toll is nearly 1,000.
'The level of insecurity today is significantly higher than in 2005,' said Seema Patel, author of Breaking Point, the latest Afghanistan report from the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
For Abdul Salam Zaeef, a founding member of the Taleban, this sudden upsurge of suicide bombers is nothing extraordinary. It shows, he believes, that his countrymen 'hate Americans more than they ever did the Russians [the Soviet army occupied the country in the 1980s]'.
'The Russians killed us, but they did not dishonour me, they did not strip me naked or ogle my wife, search my house and show disrespect to the Holy Koran,' said Mr Zaeef, now in Kabul after a spell in the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison.
'Collateral damage' from the military operations conducted by US and Nato forces is given as one reason for the return of the Taleban. The support the Taleban leadership gets in neighbouring Pakistan is another key factor.
But the main causes according to analysts, lie elsewhere - poor governance, lack of development, and intra-tribal conflict.
Take the southern province of Helmand, where both poppy cultivation and Taleban violence peaked last year. 'Helmand was once known as 'Little America' - ice-cream cones were sold there even before Kabul,' said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, the deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission who grew up in Helmand.
'But today it is the most conservative and turbulent region as corrupt officials, judges and policemen fail to bridge the gap between the people and the administration.'
The drug business has brought unprecedented corruption - the post of police chief in some districts, for instance, sells for US$250,000.
'The Taleban have been most successful where there are major obstacles to people's access to justice,' Mr Hakim said. 'We don't approve of their methods, but by providing quick justice the Taleban have gained public support.'
Helmand's problems were compounded by a former governor who blatantly discriminated against a rival sub-tribe among the Pashtun, the main tribal grouping in the south.
'The Taleban represent the dispossessed, and the traditionally dispossessed in Helmand are the Ishakzai sub-tribe, who turned to the Taleban when the administration turned abusive and predatory towards them,' said a western diplomat.
A fresh Taleban offensive is imminent, but analysts see a ray of hope.
'Today's Taleban is primarily military-run, not political, and we get feedback now that people are beginning to resent the harsh tactics - beheadings, summary executions - of ruthless commanders like Mullah Dadullah,' said the diplomat. 'The issue now is how to exploit this renewed anti-Taleban feeling.'
Back on Highway No 5, truck driver Nangyalaya Khaksar is emphatic that if the Taleban return to power, he will leave the country. 'Corruption is crazy now, the police demand bribes at every checkpoint, but I still don't want to live under the Taleban again - they try to control your life too much.'