Taliban insurgents have established a permanent presence in almost three-quarters of the territory of Afghanistan and are "closing a noose" around the capital Kabul, according to a report published today.
The independent thinktank International Council on Security and Development was critical of the international community's "failure" to address the security situation, which it argued in its report had brought Afghanistan "to a precipice".
The 50,000-strong Nato-ISAF international military force would have to be increased by tens of thousands of troops to make any real difference, said the report.
It blamed naivety by the US and its allies for allowing the Taliban to return following its 2001 defeat and said the movement had experienced a "renaissance" since 2005 which had seen it increase its presence from 54 per cent to 72 per cent of the country over the past year.
"While the international community's prospects in Afghanistan have never been bleaker, the Taliban has been experiencing a renaissance that has gained momentum since 2005," said the report.
"As seven years of missed opportunity have rolled by, the Taliban has rooted itself across increasing swathes of Afghan territory.
"According to research undertaken by ICOS throughout 2008, the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72 per cent of the country. Moreover, it is now seen as the de facto governing power in a number of southern towns and villages."
Of the four routes out of Kabul, only one - to the north - is considered safe for Afghan and international travel, said ICOS. Roads to the south are unsafe, while travellers to the west are in danger within 30 minutes of leaving the capital and to the east within an hour.
"By blocking the doors to the city in this way, the Taliban insurgents are closing a noose around the city and establishing bases close to the city from which to launch attacks inside it," said the report, citing bomb attacks, assassinations and kidnappings of Afghans and foreigners within Kabul itself.
"The Taliban are now dictating terms in Afghanistan, both politically and militarily," said ICOS.
"At the national level, talk of reconciliation and power-sharing between undefined moderate elements of the movement and elected government officials is commonplace. At a local level, the Taliban are manoeuvring skilfully to fill the governance void, frequently offering a mellower version of localised leadership than characterised their last stint in power."
The "agility" and "unity of purpose" of insurgent forces, compared with Nato's "ill-equipped, lumbering military machine" meant that genuine security could not be established in any of the 72 per cent of Afghan territory where the Taliban had a permanent presence, said the report.
And it warned: "The inability of domestic and international actors to counter the entrenchment of the insurgency in Afghanistan is deeply troubling, and the failure of Nato's political masters to address the realities of the security situation in Afghanistan has taken the country and the Karzai Government to a precipice.
"It will take more than a military defeat of the Taliban to build trust, especially in the southern provinces.
"The insurgency continues to turn Nato's weaknesses into its own strengths. Until external factors expand focus beyond the military dimensions, by targeting needs at a grassroots level and thus restoring its previous levels of support, there is a danger that Afghanistan will be lost for at least another generation."