QALAT, Afghanistan – Until the Taliban were driven from power, Mullah Ehsanullah was an intelligence official, enforcing the militia’s Islamic orthodoxy in eastern Afghanistan.

Five years later, he is again busy in the Taliban ranks, shepherding recruits through the guerrilla training camps hidden in the rugged terrain here and in Pakistan’s tribal regions across the border.

He says a new generation is learning tactics such as suicide bombings and remote-detonated explosives that have had devastating effect in Afghanistan.

These recruits have contributed to the average of 600 attacks launched each month this year against government officials, NATO and U.S. soldiers, the Afghan National Army and police.

The religious militia is capitalizing on the anger and frustration of Afghan civilians against their foreign-backed government, seen as deeply corrupt and slow to bring improvements or even basic security to the more remote regions of the country, Ehsanullah and others say in interviews.

“The people in the beginning were saying that, ‘OK the war is finished, we want stability. It is time for peace. It is over,”‘ Ehsanullah said.

But government help hasn’t reached many Afghans, and much of the country has returned to the same 1990s anarchy and lawlessness that gave rise to the Taliban’s iron-fisted rule.

Taliban fighters defend villagers against criminal gangs which often are linked to the government, he said. They don’t perform the arbitrary arrests and searches that are conducted by the Western troops who occasionally patrol the region. Also boosting their ranks are Western air strikes that often kill civilians along with combatants.

“If this is all they are going to do for us, is kill us, they should get out,” shouted Ghulab Shah, a middle-aged man from Ashogho in southern Kandahar after nine of his neighbors were killed as they slept when a NATO bomb blasted their home.

Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid shares the frustration. “How are we supposed to bring security to the country with this kind of thing happening?” he asked.

The government, he said, can replace the houses destroyed in the raids. “But who do you build a house for if they are all dead?”

The Taliban defeat in 2001 provoked a backlash against their harsh rule and a surge in support for the new government. From Zabul province in southeast Afghanistan, 2,000 young men went to Kabul to sign up for the new national army or police forces.

All returned, police officials say, frustrated by poor salary or perceived ethnic bias in the new government. All but four joined the Taliban, they said.

And to the common people, criminal gangs abetted by the police and military are as big a threat in many areas as the fundamentalist militia, said Noor Mohammed Paktin, Zabul’s police chief.

“Many times when they say Taliban attacked cars on the highway, it is thieves, sometimes … with the help of the police,” Paktin said in his office in Zabul’s provincial capital, Qalat.

Roads through the province are dangerous. Even the highway between Kabul and Kandahar, built with U.S. money and hailed as a symbol of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban rebirth, is normally empty by early afternoon because of checkpoints run by the Taliban, thieves or rogue police.

Paktin said he has tried to weed out corruption, but complained that his officers earn only $60 a month, and haven’t received even that in the past three months. He said his letters to the Ministry of the Interior asking what happened to the money have gone unanswered.

Corruption is so widespread, he said, that in some villages people have quit dealing with officialdom and turned to Taliban councils to resolve disputes.

On top of bribery and extortion among security forces, some top government officials tolerate Afghanistan’s thriving drug trade, the police chief said. “I am trying my best to control drug traffickers,” he said. “But inside the government, I am getting trouble. The drug mafia has its links inside the government.”

In an interview with The Associated Press in his offices in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai said corruption’s part in fueling the insurgency has been overstated, and that Afghanistan is less corrupt than some of its neighbors.

Instead, he insisted the main problem is Pakistan’s government, saying its failure to control its tribal areas was fostering the Taliban resurgence.

Regardless of who is to blame, Afghans have lost faith in the central government, and its authority in the outlying regions barely exists.

Today, local officials say, most of Zabul province is under Taliban control. In Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, government influence is restricted to the capital cities and a few district headquarters, according to Najibullah, a career police officer who asked that his full name not be used, for fear of being disciplined.

Rather than try to defend the village of Musa Qalat in Helmand Province, Najibullah said, British soldiers and their Afghan army allies pulled out in mid-October.

They handed villagers 200 rifles and, in essence, wished them luck.

“In Musa Qala the government is there only in name,” Najibullah said.

Police morale is low, he said, and officers have not been paid in months. About 70 of his 350 men have quit. “Why am I fighting?” Najibullah said. “Because I am a career military man and I should defend the government. But I know that from the ministers right down to the soldiers they are all thieves.”

Some Afghans who welcomed the U.S.-led troops five years ago now resent them. Even after years of operating in Afghanistan, Najibullah said, NATO and U.S. forces still get caught in the middle of tribal feuds and ancient grudges, raiding homes or attacking villages on dubious tips.

Najibullah said that he saw two women and two children killed this fall when coalition troops fired on their vehicle. He was discouraged from reporting the incident up the chain of command, he said. Of the incident, NATO spokesman Luke Knitting said, “Not an easy one to dig out. Will see what I can do” but was unable to provide information about it.

“The mistake of the foreign forces is they are bombing and killing, and then the people they are going with the Taliban and not with us,” Najibullah said. “Day by day the government will become weaker and weaker. Every hour, not even every day, but every hour the situation gets worse.”

Encounters between the Western militaries and Afghans are tense. Mohammad Sharif, a tribal leader near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, sought help from coalition troops in finding a detained relative this year. What he got, he says, was a series of humiliating searches.

“Five times they searched me and found nothing,” he said. “But when we spoke they had their pistol in their hand…That means they don’t see us as their friend, but only as an enemy. People who come without trust, how can they rebuild our country?”

The Taliban have also made an ally of Afghanistan’s endemic poverty.

They recruit many disaffected and unemployed young men within Afghanistan and in places like the Qari Jangel refugee camp in Pakistan’s remote southern Baluchistan province, said Christopher Alexander, deputy special representative of the U.N. secretary general in Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities ordered the camp closed in April, but it remains open. Local officials say the order comes from the United States, and they refuse to enforce it.

Alexander called cross-border support for the Taliban “very strong.”

He said only a few of the fighters in southern Afghanistan are ideologically committed Taliban, or foreign jihadists. Most, he said, are simply Afghan villagers drawn to the movement by tribal honor, frustration or the need for a job.

AP-ES-11-21-06 1707EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.