Robert Fisk: Once more fear stalks the streets of Kandahar

Five years after his last visit, our correspondent finds the Taliban back in charge of their spiritual home – and girls attacked with acid simply for attending school

There is a little girl in the Meir Wais hospital with livid scars and dead skin across her face, an obscene map of brown and pink tissue. Then there is another girl, a beautiful child, Khorea Horay, grimacing in pain, her leg amputated, her life destroyed after her foot was torn to pieces. In another ward, two girls lie on their backs, a tent above their limbs. One has lost an arm, another – a 16-year-old – a leg.

Then there is the grim young man with the beard, also in the darkest pain, who looks at me with suspicion and puzzlement. He has a bullet wound in the abdomen, a great incision sutured up after the doctors found it infected. Two other young men, also bearded, cowled in brown "patu" shawls, sit beside this suffering warrior. They, too, stare at me as if I am a visitor from Mars. Perhaps that's what I am in Kandahar. Better to be a Martian than a Westerner in a city which in all but name has fallen to the Taliban.

The black turbans are everywhere. So are the blue burkhas which we Westerners confidently – stupidly – believed would vanish from Afghan society. But the Taliban insist they were not responsible for throwing acid in the face of the little girl in the second-floor ward at Meir Wais hospital. You know what she is thinking. You know what her parents are thinking. Who will marry this girl now, with her patchwork face of pain? Four men on a motorcycle threw acid at her and 13 of her friends on their way to school. Four were brought here, two dispatched immediately to the eye department. The Taliban deny any involvement. But they would, wouldn't they?

Khorea Horay is a victim of that other tormentor of southern Afghanistan, the forces of Western "civilisation" who dispense "collateral damage" to the poor and the illiterate of Kandahar province in their determination to bring "freedom" and "democracy" to the land that defeated both Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. The Americans air-raided her village of Shahrwali Kut in their battle against "terrorism"; a Taliban on a nearby hilltop appears to have fired a missile at Nato troops before our Western technology arrived to crush Khorea's village. "I looked downwards and my foot was in little pieces," she said. "They came from the sky and from the ground. It started in the afternoon and went on into the night." In all, 36 members of a wedding party were killed in Shahrwali Kut on 5 November. That's why she is one of the lucky ones. But luck is relative. Nato forces in southern Afghanistan have promised an inquiry. Needless to say, not a single Western soldier has visited Khorea's hospital ward to say sorry, even to offer a little compassion.

The two girls with amputations are very definitely victims of the Taliban. They were walking in the very centre of Kandahar when a suicide bomber exploded an oil tanker packed with explosives outside the council office which still – theoretically – belongs to the government. The target was Wali Karzai, governor of Kandahar, brother of President Hamid Karzai, a man still desperately denying that he is a local drugs warlord. He escaped. Six died. Of the 45 wounded brought to the Meir Wais hospital, almost all were women and children, many of them crushed by falling walls after the explosion.

The doctors lost only one of their patients, a senior police officer, while two bodies were brought to the hospital morgue, one of them a woman. The Taliban happily claimed responsibility for the bomb which tore their own people apart – and which allowed the Nato commander, US General David McKiernan, to pump out some familiar warspeak. "These cowardly acts reflect how dishonourable the insurgents truly are," he said. "No one can honestly say they are fighting for the people ...".

But who is "fighting for the people" of Kandahar? To its immense credit, the International Committee of the Red Cross is donating £1m a year to the Meir Wais hospital and 11 of its international staff are – incredibly – working full-time in Kandahar. Every other NGO has fled the Taliban city but the ICRC – in contact with "all parties", as the ubiquitous codicil goes – are dispensing medicines, surgical help and courage. They come from Switzerland, France, Ivory Coast, Hungary, New Zealand, Australia and other nations – and walk a tightrope in this terribly dangerous city. Anyone who still chastises the ICRC for its pusillanimous role in confronting the Nazi Holocaust of the Second World War should meet the brave men and women who work here.

A little girl is brought into the hospital in a green dress. "Isn't she beautiful?" Nola Henrya nurse from Australia asked us. "She fractured a bone, but it got infected. Now we will see if we can save her leg." Green-eyed, her tousled black hair falling over her face, the three-year-old sits on the cold concrete floor, eyeing us, half suspicious, half-mischievous, conscious of being the centre of our attention. They often arrive like this, too late for surgery or for cure. Many families arrive from the villages with children dying in their arms. "We are an uneducated people," an Afghan doctor told me with painful if unnecessary humility. "These people do not know what is wrong with their children and they wait till it's bad before they bring them here. By then, it is very bad." I look at one-year-old Nourallah. He is a skeletal creature as light as a pillow, his eyes glazing over at us within circles of skin.

And it is all too clear what is wrong with many of these children. They are dying of hunger. There is a mini-famine in the desolation of the deserts of Kandahar and Helmand. Malnutrition here is a kind of disease. So is fear. I talk to a young Afghan woman hospital worker, dressed in a burkha, educated in Pakistan, fluent in English. "I am afraid," she said. "We are all afraid. We all feel threatened. It's not just 'them' [she means the Taliban] but it's my own relatives, my aunt, my cousin. I do not tell them what I do. I just say I work in a hospital."

Across Kandahar, there is great anger. At the government's corruption, at the Nato occupation and their killings. Little is said of the Taliban. But who condemns those who are winning the war? Taliban officials now speak with near-courtesy of the Tadjiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras who were their sectarian enemies in the awful years of Taliban rule. "If they are against the occupation, they are all friends now," one of the wisest local residents said. There is a new vein of nationalism within the Taliban. "Twenty per cent of the population here are Shias and their mosques were turned into Sunni places of worship by the Taliban during their rule. But now the Shias are asking their mullahs what they should do if America attacks Iran, and their mullahs told them that if this happens, they should support the Islamic Republic and attack all American and Nato interests in Kandahar."

Beside the vast American airbase 20 miles away, a Nato metropolis adjacent to the most Islamist city in Afghanistan, the "international" airport sits in a slough of despond, its chain-smoking Afghan soldiers scarcely bothering to carry out security procedures on passengers, its echoing, empty departure lounges adorned with crude advertisements for tourist agencies that no longer exist and for an Afghan army which disappears from the roads after 4pm every day. I stood beside the runway yesterday, watching the armada of US air fleets roaring into the pale blue wintry sky, Russian-built transports and high-flying US reconnaissance jets and Kiowa helicopters and the softly landing Predators and Raptors, the hi-tech, broad-winged pilotless spotters and killers. The Predators look for the targets. The Raptors fire Hellfire missiles – manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. One Raptor returned with its missiles still locked to its wings. Was its mission aborted over Pakistan? Or Helmand?

Another took off. Two minutes later – I could still just see it – at 1,500 feet, US personnel at Tampa, Florida, would have taken over its flight path. It was 11.30 in the morning, a computer guiding its progress at 2am US Eastern Standard Time. Does the guiding hand on the other side of the world have any idea of the political direction in which this machine is flying? Or of the people it threatens.

Barack Obama wants to send 7,000 more American troops to this disaster zone. Does he have the slightest idea what is going on in Afghanistan? For if he did, he would send 7,000 doctors.