In a brickmakers' hut at the edge of Afghanistan's capital Kabul, Samiullah, his only name, washes his face and hands. They are black from feeding the moori - the glowing openings in the kiln's surface - with coal. The hut is a bare room shared by four men. Musafer they are called: single men who live together. There is bedding and phone numbers are scratched into the wall. A blackened kettle has been cooked on one of the red-hot vents.
Samiullah is 23. His family farm is in the village of Sohrabi, an hour's drive, he says, from Kabul. Samiullah has not seen it or his family recently. They are living in Peshawar in Pakistan. 'In Afghanistan everything is in chaos,' says Samiullah. 'Remember what happened in Kabul,' he says, referring to an attempt to kill President Hamid Karzai. 'So my home is in Peshawar. I come here and work for three or four months, then I go home again. I'll go in two weeks to give them money. Then I'll be back.'
Afghanistan's problems spring from 'lies and promises that were not kept. There is no security. Everything is in disorder. And the poor are no better off than they were before. They have to take out loans that they cannot return.
'I'm not going back to my farm in Sohrabi. I can't even take my family there. Sometimes the Taliban attack and sometimes the coalition bomb. So the land is looked after by another farmer who grows opium and gives me some of the money.'
Three days before our meeting, he says, armed men came to his hut and stole their wages and phone Sim cards. 'They stole a thousand rupees from me, and a thousand from him,' he says, pointing to a colleague.
In the seventh year after the fall of the first incarnation of the Taliban, two Afghanistans exist. The first is defined by international effort in the country - civil and military - whose story is told in battles won and reconstruction projects brought successfully to fruition. It is largely told through the prism of foreigners, diplomats and soldiers, British, Canadian and American. It emphasises good news, most recently a claim - that would surprise Afghans - that foreign forces were 'routing' the Taliban.
The other Afghanistan is largely ignored. This has 30 million people in whose name the war is being fought. Its themes are disappointment, bitterness and pessimism: a conviction that the vast intervention to rebuild the world's fourth poorest country has benefited only a small handful, and Afghanistan is heading for a new crisis. As even some Western diplomats are beginning to acknowledge, the prevailing fear is that the war is in danger not of being lost or won in Helmand province, but in the perceptions of Afghans.
The problems confronting Afghanistan were brutally summed up in a speech by Nick Grono of the International Crisis Group charity in April. The desire for a 'quick, cheap war' in 2001, he charged, had been followed by a wish for a 'quick, cheap peace'. 'Too often in Afghanistan,' he said, 'when something doesn't go right straight away we say it won't work, or the Afghans won't do it, so we need a new strategy. I'm beginning to lose count of the "last chances".'
The consequence, said Grono, 'is festering grievances and an alienated population that turns against those believed responsible for the abuse - be they warlords turned governors, the government in Kabul, or the international forces who support them'. His comments followed warnings from international watchdogs earlier this year that the country was again in danger of becoming a 'failed state'. The sense of alienation is hardly surprising. What optimism that there was after the fall of the Taliban has largely dissipated. With 40 per cent unemployment, and faced with drought, rocketing food prices and vast amounts of aid money squandered, the international community's promises to transform Afghanistan - six years on - ring increasingly hollow.
They are issues that, along with pervasive corruption, weak government and the struggle to impose the rule of law, will be thrust to the fore again this week as Afghanistan's government is offered a 'last chance' once more - requesting an additional $50bn in aid from donor nations at a conference in Paris being portrayed as a 'new deal' for the country. The question is whether it is too little, too late, to save Afghanistan from being engulfed in a new catastrophe.
Ali Khan, Kabul's best-known artist, echoes the concerns about his country's trajectory. Nicknamed 'Yazdani' - 'what God created' - he teaches fine art at Kabul University, which many believe is being infiltrated by the Taliban. He also instructs a group of orphans who meet near his house in his predominantly Hazara neighbourhood of Farsi-speaking Shia Asiatics, Afghanistan's third largest ethnic group. Yazdani's paintings sell for $250 to $300, a lot here.
'I began drawing when I was a child during the civil war,' he says. 'It was 17 years ago and I could not go out.' When the Taliban came, Yazdani had to paint in secret and hide his work after one of his portraits was slashed. Yazdani is already wondering if he may have to leave. It is just a thought for now. 'Saying it is one thing, but doing it is something else. What I am worried about is that it will get so bad that I am forced to decide whether to stay or go. And at the moment I don't have much hope.'
Yazdani reflects a fear that even in one of Afghanistan's safest cities is becoming corrosive, seeping into all aspects of life. At the city's Olympic Stadium, grandly named but in reality a large gym hall, the Afghan women's national basketball team is training. They are teenagers, most still at school. But not all of their parents are enthusiastic. 'We are facing a lot of problems, you know,' says Aresta Haidary, 19. 'Some of the families don't like us coming to the gym.'
'With the economic difficulties as well,' adds Maihan Wali, 18, 'some can't afford to get here by taxi.'
'Our teachers want to help us to improve,' adds Aresta. 'But there are families who do not want their children to come here. But we want to show the terrorists that Afghan women can improve.'
'The families love their children,' says Maihan. 'It is something for them to worry about. President Karzai has bodyguards to save him. But we don't.'
The accumulating crisis is building around both the failure of governance and the Taliban's renewed insurgency. Despite national elections in 2004 and 2005, democracy has failed to gain any real traction. Karzai's Western-backed government, in trying to buy off rival warlords and factions who were once powerful, has created a charmed inner circle. The warlords have found themselves new jobs in the Interior Ministry or police, where they continue to protect drug traffickers. Some of those accused are among Karzai's closest associates - including his brother Wali. When asked, the unemployed who gather at the roundabouts, the tribal leaders, and the women activists, the journalists and the housewives list the same complaints. Karzai, they say, is 'weak'. Security is disintegrating. His cabinet is corrupt, the country is in danger again of descending into warlordism.
Civil servants and teachers are not paid a living wage, while most confront widespread endemic poverty and large-scale unemployment. They point, too, to a growing crisis of legitimacy that many fear will be exacerbated by the coming three-year electoral cycle that has seen those in power engaged in scrabbling to shore up their positions with alliances and deals.
'I think the pessimism among ordinary people is even less than among people like me,' says Professor Wadir Safi, director of the International Law Development Organisation. 'They sit in every corner of this country and they are not happy. The problem is that, after the Bonn Conference in 2001, Karzai could not bring the right cabinet to support him. And so we have gangsters linked to narcotics and terrorist warlords. Karzai is on top of these thieves.
'It is not simply psychological. It is material. If the administration after the Taliban had brought about changes, developed the economy to help the poor so that people could feel things were changing, they would have also changed the country's mind as well. I mean, every day I go to the university and there are tens of children who throw themselves on my car to ask for money or a piece of bread. What kind of government, what kind of social justice, is this?'
They are questions that are beginning to worry even Western officials who - anonymously - will now talk about what they feel has gone wrong. 'It is right,' said one, 'to identify the weak central government. Despite concerted effort of assistance over the last five years the performance of the government at local level has been patchy. It was driven by the sense that we had to stand up a vaguely capable central government at first.
'The government has found it hard to find professional people to work in the civil service. It is badly paid and prone to bribery. I think there is a growing perception of a crisis, that the chances are shrinking to address the problems facing this government - in particular corruption. A lot will depend on the coming elections beginning with the presidential elections. If those do not go well... well, I'm not going to offer a prognosis.'
It is not a solitary view. Other Western officials concede one of the country's most pressing problems is that Afghans are no longer being persuaded that the course set out in the Bonn Conference and the Afghanistan Compact of 2006 has any meaning for them. It is a sense of a coming crisis that is being driven by facts available to all, Afghans and members of the international community.
Suicide bombings last year were up by 27 per cent over the preceding year, and up 600 per cent in comparison with 2005. Taliban attacks increased fourfold over the same period. Two months ago the International Crisis Group outlined a series of scenarios facing Afghanistan without further help - all catastrophic. It raised the spectre of civil war on ethnic lines; the creation of a criminalised drug state; the Pashtun south abandoned to extremists or, perhaps most alarming, of regional powers being drawn once again into Afghanistan's crisis.
The indicators of Afghanistan's decline are to be found everywhere: in the children sent by their parents to sell insecticides to the motorists on the street; in the young women students donning burkas to disguise their identities, who go to beg from shop to shop. It is also in evidence in the Park Cinema, whose posters advertise racy Indian films.
Owned by the government, like all of Kabul's surviving cinemas, it is run by Mahmoud Hashim Haideri, who watches as an amputee guard frisks the handful of boys coming in for an afternoon performance. 'Three of the cinemas were destroyed during the civil war,' he says. 'This one was damaged, but the British helped repair it.' Packets of crisps sit unopened behind a glass stand. No one buys them. 'Five years ago,' explains Mahmoud, 'the boys could afford to buy them. Now no one can.'
His audiences have dropped in numbers. 'There are soldiers of 40 countries fighting here. So why is the fighting still going on? We have peacekeepers not keeping the peace. The countries who send them [are] not co-operating but following their own agendas, and a weak government [has] no control. If this situation continues for another month, people will start leaving Afghanistan again.'
And if the sense of pessimism is toxic in Kabul, it grows deeper the closer that you approach the south.
The official story is that the violence is limited to rural pockets, that the war is being won. But it appears the conflict is merely changing. Where once the Taliban were happy to engage in a more conventional conflict, they are now more subtle. Last year 'human wave' attacks on Nato positions declined in favour of a marked increase in suicide bombings.
A UN 'accessibility' map shows a very different picture from the official one: a nation sliced in two, much of it hostile for aid workers. Where it is red - classified 'extreme' - is where the opium poppies are. Much of the south is red. In the centre of this zone is Kandahar, the Taliban's first capital in the south. At first glance it seems much like Kabul, a bustling and busy place. Small groups of men pray on the rooftop mosques, silhouetted against the sky.
But Kandahar's differences exist in a hidden geography, in such places as Loyah Wallah, the 'Big Canal' district, towards the city university where the Taliban discreetly hold sway. Officially the government says it controls the city. But local people tell a different story. And what people only fear in Kabul, in Kandahar exists as reality.
Nazifa Shah is an 18-year-old radio journalist at Afghan Azad Radio, a station owned by one of Karzai's brothers, Qayoum, that broadcasts in the city. But like many journalists, women often foremost among them, she has been targeted for her work, a phenomenon visible from Herat to Kabul, and Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif, as the new freedoms of expression, brought in since 2002, are rapidly rolled back again. An earnest woman who has decided to keep working, she explains: 'There are so many challenges here. If you are a woman and a journalist there is so much trouble.'
Serious problems began last year. 'I was on my way to work. I started getting threatening calls on my mobile phone, saying: "This is the Taliban." They said if I didn't stop they would harm my family and me. Then a letter came. A message for my father. It named him and said: "We know your daughter is working for the radio. We have recorded her voice. If she does not stop we will throw a grenade at your house." They also followed me for three days. We decided to move home and rent. But my family supports me and I carry on.
'I felt so optimistic in the first year of this government,' she adds. 'Everyone was. They were trying to send their girls to school and work. Now they won't even send their daughters to school because of the security situation.
'I am still optimistic about my work,' Nazifa continues. But that is all. 'More generally about the situation, I'm not.'
A little way across the city is the home of Neamat Arghand, a former mujahideen who fought the Russians. He then worked for the UN, before fleeing to Britain after being threatened by the Taliban. These days he divides his time between London and Kandahar running a youth organisation.
'Development-wise a lot has happened. But a system has not been created to allow a platform for people to have a voice. They have not managed that in seven years! The President does not have a proper party. He does not have a team or political activists. There are a few parties in the north, but none of any real significance here. So when people get frustrated they turn to violence.'
He takes a call from one of his youth members in a rural district 18 miles (30km) distant, who is harvesting opium poppies. 'He says where he is the Taliban run everything,' says Arghand, turning from his mobile phone. 'He says they have police and courts and government. Everything. Even prosecutors.'
'When this government came,' Arghand says, 'their quick success was their failure. It gave the US the reason to take it easy. When the US went off to Iraq, it left Afghanistan behind. They realised too late the problems that were developing here.
'It is dangerous in Kandahar, even for me. You cannot differentiate who the enemy is. You don't know if a policeman you are dealing with is Taliban. If I go out and come back, it is a bonus because the killing is so indiscriminate. They kill people at school or at the mosque. The father of one of my colleagues was killed at a mosque. Another lost all of his sons.'
The real war here cannot be accurately described in the stories of the battles that British soldiers fight but in stories of the Afghan dead, the biggest victims of this war. In the town of Lashkar Gah, Haji Omar Qani, the local head of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, describes his country's decline. 'Three years ago,' he says, 'we used to work all over Helmand province.' But that was before the renewed Taliban insurgency that gained pace in 2006.
'In the last two years we have been able to work in six of the 13 districts.' An experimental farm is being run by the government with US and British aid on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah. Despite claims the town is 'pacified', the farm has watchtowers and guards with guns. 'The farm can be insecure,' Qani explains. 'The enemy wants to bring anarchy.' He describes the 'problems' his organisation's workers encounter. By problems he means attacks. 'It has happened many times. They killed one of our engineers. Last year another one was kidnapped. They threw a hand grenade into our office three months ago. They killed my son. They wanted to intimidate, not to do this job. And so they killed my son.'
It is left to a lorry driver from Lashkar Gah to say: 'There are no jobs.' And he complains that there is too little security despite the British base. 'We are all thinking about who will be the next ruler of Afghanistan. If foreign troops go, the Taliban will come. Then there will be resistance and chaos, like there was before. For now there is no peace, no security, no central government. During the time of the Taliban I was left in peace.
'There is an old Pashto proverb,' he adds ruefully. 'The old thieves were better than the new.'
© 2008 The Guardian