Fear permeates Kandahar. Eyes watch every passer-by, every car. Everyone is suspect. People shrink away from me when I ask to interview them. They run when they see a camera. The few brave souls who agree to talk do so either anonymously or because they are desperate.
There is no war, no shooting, no rockets. At least not yet, although the Taliban wave is reconquering Afghanistan, and fighting is spreading through Kandahar province.
Only a few months ago, the city of Kandahar was on the road to prosperity. Newly-paved streets with proper signs - one even named after Queen Soraya, wife of the 1920s reformer King Amanullah Khan - a park with a playground for children and several smart guesthouses were part of the new image. Near the Kandahar market, the foundations of many new modern buildings and houses had been laid.
Mohammad Hikmat and his younger brother bought land here - £27,000 for 400 sq m - to build a home. Over the past five years they made good money working with foreign reporters and aid agencies. But six months ago it all came to an end. The Taliban were coming back. All construction stopped. Fear spread like a fire. Then came a series of suicide attacks and printed decrees, often hung on the walls of local mosques, ordering the people to stop supporting the government.
Mr Hikmat decided to shelve his dream of owning a house and took his family to safety, across the Afghan-Pakistan border to Quetta. The construction company where he worked as an engineer fired most of its staff.
Mr Hikmat destroyed the press cards and letters of recommendation he and his brother had collected from journalists. His brother, who worked as a cameraman, erased all footage from his tapes, all film of the city, interviews and pictures of American troops, for fear of punishment by the Taliban. An Indian company that built the road between Kandahar and Spinboldak fled when news spread that the Pakistani army was helping the Taliban to reach Kandahar. Most foreigners left.
"The Americans abandoned Afghanistan," says Mr Hikmat. "When they were around, people were making money. The Taliban had run away but they were not defeated and the Americans knew that too. Yet the US decreased the number of its troops."
Then it was announced Nato would replace the US forces, a decision which encouraged the Taliban. People in Kandahar talk about a power vacuum of which the Taliban took full advantage. They had five years to organise and returned in force.
"Now the Taliban are everywhere," says Alia, a nurse in Kandahar's Polyclinic Hospital. She returned from Pakistan four years ago in the hope of living and working in Kandahar and made her home in the Khoshal Mena neighbourhood, a short distance from the city centre.
"There was a doctor called Aziz in this building" she says. "The Taliban hung a leaflet on his door, telling him if he didn't stop working for the government and didn't take his children out of school, he would be killed." He and his family escaped overnight.
Now Alia says she is scared for her own family's life. She has taken down the sign on her door which carried her name and occupation. "My children are also in school and I'm worried that I may face a similar threat," she says. Najeeba has her own mocking reaction. "At least they give you a warning," she remarks, although this might be a compliment by Afghan standards.
But Alia has another reason to worry. In recent months she engaged her 16-year-old daughter to a young Afghan who works for the Western military forces. He paid the family a bride price of about £7,000. But now Alia is fearful that her daughter and her new family will also become a Taliban target. For the Taliban control most of Helmand province, where some 4,000 British troops are stationed.
In the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, the Taliban have even been using loudspeakers, taunting Canadian troops to attack them. In the past week, Canadian soldiers travelled to Panjwai but can only hold the city centre.
In Panjwai, 30km west of Kandahar, where fighting began two weeks ago, 71 Taliban fighters died during the weekend in running battles with Nato and Afghan forces after an attack on government headquarters, according to officials.
Maiwand, the site of a great British military defeat during the Second Afghan War in 1778-1880, is now the seat of resistance to the government, and Nato.
A Maiwand resident who is hiding in Kandahar tells me he was threatened by the Taliban. He works in one of Kandahar's hospitals. "I can't go home because I know the Taliban will kill me," he says. "From our entire village there are only two educated people. It's not hard for the Taliban to find us there.
"They have continued to issue decrees announcing that the killing of all those working with the current government or any of the foreign agencies - especially the military - is an "Islamic duty". In neighbouring Helmand province, a leaflet pinned to the wall of a mosque says the Taliban will give $1,000 (£680) to anyone who brings them the head of a government worker or a foreigner.
Where is all this power and money coming from? A member of a religious group, Wakil Sahib, accuses neigbouring Pakistan. "They don't want Afghanistan to be free and economically independent," he says. "They want to keep Afghanistan as their market. They want us to continue to go to their doctors, buy their medicine, use their products. To serve their own interests, the Pakistani intelligence service funds the Taliban."
Saifullah, who is too frightened to identify his job, says everyone in Kandahar knows who created and supported the Taliban. "Pakistan, with the help of the US, originally created them -- and to this day they are providing them with weapons and money," he says.
Saifullah is one of those who suspect that the Americans directly help the Taliban. "They could control the Pakistani border and stop the Taliban crossing. So why don't they?" he asks.
The educated classes in Kandahar also tend to blame the United States. "The Americans realised that Afghanistan held no economic benefit for them so they decided to ignore the country despite all their promises," says Rafi, an unemployed engineer. "After the US, the responsibility lies on our own government, which has also failed.
"But I wonder if the war in Afghanistan is less about the Taliban and Pakistan, and more about the rivalry between America and Europe. Afghanistan has become a victim once again, just like it was during the Cold War."
But there is another reality which also helps the Taliban. When the Americans arrived in Kandahar, they also brought money, rebuilding projects, jobs and the hope of stability. Power was restored and the city had electricity, especially during the summer, when temperatures reach 55C. But the Americans also left the drug mafia and warlords intact. The former Kandahar governor, General Gulagha Shirzai, and the President's brother, Wali Karzai, who now heads the Provincial Council, have been accused of drug trafficking. They, and others like them, were America's allies.
Under the American administration, "warlordism" and poppy cultivation soared. Kandahar owed its new wealth in part to drug money. But with the shift from US to Nato forces, there came a "War on drugs" and Nato launched a relentless campaign to stop poppy cultivation. Using Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army, the Canadians and the British started to destroy the poppy fields, a policy which faced opposition from both the traffickers and the farmers. The first casualty was the power supply.
"When Nato took over, the electricity disappeared," says Ahmedallah. The Americans had apparently donated 14 powerful generators to the city, seven of them operational at any one time. But the Kandaharis are paying the price for the oil-operating machines, which provide the city with a few hours of electricity every other day. "We only had power for four days, if you counted all the hours together. And the bill for the month was $40," says Ahmedallah of his own home. An average government employee makes about $50 a month.
To continue the drug production, the traffickers as well as the farmers welcomed the Taliban. Poppy cultivation was allowed by the Taliban. "Farmers now let the Taliban stay in their homes," says Wali, who works part-time for the ROSHAN mobile phone company. "Wherever you find the Taliban, the Brits and Canadians can't go."
Two weeks ago, Wali was driving from Helmand to Kandahar when he saw a gun battle between the Taliban and Nato forces. He abandoned his car and ran to safety. A few days later he returned to find his car. The Taliban had burned it, he says, because they found papers from his work and his mobile phone inside. He'd paid $3,500 for the car and sold the burned wreck for less than $100. "If tomorrow the British and Canadians announced that the growing of poppies was allowed, the people wouldn't let the Taliban stay in the country," says Wali.
"It would certainly help if they also restore power," adds Ahmedallah. And if they established better control over the Pakistan-Afghan border, and paid the Afghan army better salaries, and used the old commanders who are now unemployed, and, above all, cleansed the current Afghan administration of corruption. The list goes on.
In Kandahar, they make a distinction between the old Pakistani-supported Taliban and the new forces of Gulbudin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was a well-paid CIA man during the Cold War, the much-feared leader of the Hizb-i-Islami (party of God) which brutalised the Kabul population before the Taliban. Some suspect that the CIA has called again on his services.
Of course, there are more conspiracy theories than facts. But the reality is that fear dominates every aspect of life here. "It would be easier to live under the full control of one or another government, be it the Taliban or a US-supported Afghan government," says Rafi. "But this is like living in purgatory."
If the Americans leave, Kandahar will fall in a week. That's what people in the city's bazaar say - and they are the ones who know the Taliban and al-Qa'ida.
In the crowded streets, where shops are filled with goods imported from Pakistan, Iran and China, where young boys sell large square blocks of ice and bottled water, foreigners are no longer welcome.
No Nato patrol can pass through here. "They are too scared to come to this area," says my guide Ahmedallah. So the Taliban don't attack the market because there are no foreigners - or perhaps, as the Kandaharis claim, because this place is their nest. Kandahar is lost.Reuse content