The other war

Five years into the war, the Taliban has returned, with continued widespread poverty smoothing the way. Villagers readily talk about their frustrations.

Published October 7, 2006

DASHTAK, Afghanistan - The village of Dashtak sits on a bumpy, washed-out specter of a road, an hour's drive off the main highway between Kabul and Afghanistan's lawless southeast.

It has 16 new wells financed by an aid agency. But the village men who gather around a visiting journalist focus elsewhere. They offer a litany of complaints: no paved roads, no running water, no electricity, and the closest health clinic is two hours away by donkey.

Their frustration boils over when talk turns to 10 villagers recently arrested on suspicion of aiding insurgents. "We are dying from lack of food and water - and they call us al-Qaida or Taliban," said Shah Mahmood, a 55-year-old with a long white beard and stark black turban.

Five years into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the country is far from won over, or even safely on the path to stability and democracy.

The hard-line Islamic Taliban that appeared down and out has returned with a vengeance, taking control of large swaths of countryside. Widespread poverty has smoothed its way, shaking what little confidence Afghans have in their democratically elected government.

The 40,000 U.S. and NATO troops appear further away from bringing stability than they did three years ago when their number was 2½ times smaller. And Osama bin Laden, whose presence here was a trigger for the U.S.-led attack, is still at large.

"This is likely to be a long war," said Seth Jones, an analyst with the U.S.-based RAND Corp.

That Afghanistan's future would remain in doubt today was almost unthinkable when the U.S.-led rout of the Taliban began on Oct. 7, 2001. The military campaign that captured Kabul, the capital, in just over a month resulted in a wave of optimism across Afghanistan, a country that had known little except war for a quarter century.

Emerging from the Taliban's repression, the nation embraced renewed freedoms. Millions of Afghans voted for a new president in 2004 and Parliament in 2005.

But despite billions plowed into new roads, clinics and schools, development lags in the volatile ethnic Pashtun areas in the south and east, and corruption has helped the Taliban to take root once again.

Making matters worse, drug production that was virtually wiped out by the Taliban by 2001 has skyrocketed.

Large areas of southern and eastern provinces near the Pakistan border are under Taliban control, said Ayesha Khan, an Afghanistan expert in Britain. Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a lawmaker and former Taliban commander, ticks off the militant strongholds: Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, Paktika, Khost, Kunar and Ghazni provinces.

The war's cost for U.S. taxpayers: $97-billion, and Congress just appropriated $70-billion more for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unlike Iraq, where the United States makes up the overwhelming majority of the international force, Afghanistan is a broad coalition. The world's most powerful nations continue to work side by side in pursuit of the same declared aim: stabilizing the country and bolstering economic recovery.

But Richard Norland, the U.S. deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, said that the "sense of progress has kind of abated lately."