The return of the Taliban

Liberated women? The chief justice wants to ban women from driving. That's not the only way in which

Afghans are about to get their first weather forecast after an eight-year interruption. The Taliban ban on weathermen was the most ludicrous of many strange edicts from the regime that outlawed white shoes, lipstick and the flying of kites.

Mullah Omar's insistence that only God can predict the future meant there was no forecast to warn the Ariana pilot that his plane from Kandahar was flying straight into a storm. He crashed into a mountain, killing all 51 people on board; nor were there forecasts for farmers planting precious seeds at the onset of a drought.

"Ah, the joys of American liberation," said an old Afghan friend, as he told me about the return of meteorology. In fact, while the un-banning of Afghanistan's very own Michael Fish serves as a reminder of the strictures of life under the Taliban, it also highlights something that Washington would prefer went unnoticed. For more than two years, a semi-literate, one-eyed mullah who used to entertain himself by holding a driving wheel and making "vroom vroom" noises has been outwitting the world's most powerful army.

With nothing but bombs and shootings coming daily out of Iraq, the Bush administration - desperately needing a success story before the November elections - has suddenly rediscovered Afghanistan. American troop numbers have been stepped up to roughly 13,000, and in recent weeks there has been a rash of pronouncements about the imminent capture of Osama Bin Laden, as well as a flurry of US officials from Donald Rumsfeld on down, passing through Kabul and making self-congratulatory statements. The US secretary of defence declared that the Taliban had "gone", describing Afghanistan as "a model for freedom and moderation in the Muslim world".

But the "other war", as it is known, refuses to play by the book. Rumsfeld's declarations coincided with the killing of five Afghan aid workers in Sarobi, just 30 miles outside the capital, by two men who stopped their car, ordered the aid workers to stand in line, then shot them one by one. And nobody could fail to notice the heavily armed American bodyguards flanking the man at Rumsfeld's side, Hamid Karzai, the US-backed president. Paid for by the US State Department, the bodyguards are hired from DynCorp, an American conglomerate that offers private security services: no Afghans can be trusted to protect their leader.

"It's as if the Americans are living on another planet," complained a European diplomat in Kabul. "The pronouncements they are making about this place bear no relation to what is actually happening."

The reality is that two years after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, not only do both Bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large, but the Taliban have been making an astonishing comeback. Since last summer, attacks in the south and east have become daily occurrences, forcing the United Nations to suspend operations in more than half the country's provinces. For the first time in 25 years of war in Afghanistan, many attacks are being targeted at aid workers - 13 were killed in two weeks last month, while in the capital, British, German and Canadian peacekeepers have all been victims.

Despite the growing lawlessness, the Bush administration is insisting that the Afghan presidential elections go ahead in June as scheduled, even though all the other major players - the UN, most European and Nato countries, NGOs and half the Afghan cabinet - have pleaded for a delay. Nobody knows how elections can proceed when a third of the country is a war zone and less than 10 per cent of the estimated 10.5 million voters have registered. But Washington is desperate to declare Afghanistan a democracy and for Karzai to win in order to vindicate its support.

A Karzai victory is by no means assured, however. His lack of a domestic base was illustrated when a senior Afghan diplomat recently met the Queen, who complimented him on his "elegant president". Her Majesty must have been confounded by his reply. "No one knows him in our country," the diplomat claimed, and then told a story of a young Karzai being refused entry to a teashop for wearing tattered clothes.

But Washington's determination to talk up "the new Afghan-istan" knows no bounds. This month, Charlotte Ponticelli, senior co-ordinator for international women's issues at the US State Department, described the progress in women's rights as "unstoppable", adding that things have "categorically" improved for Afghan women.

Most Afghan women would be astonished by Ponticelli's description. Although girls can now go to school, few have discarded the burqa, which for the west came to symbolise Taliban repression. And in recent weeks there have been a spate of self-immolations from women forced into marriage. The country's chief justice, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, has stopped female singers from appearing on television and is trying to ban women from driving.

"Any advances are relative advances tempered with neo-Taliban practices against women," said Sima Wali, head of Refugee Women in Development. "Women are still subjected to sexual violence, torture, trafficking in women, forced marriage, domestic violence - the list goes on and on."

One possible explanation for Washington's self-delusion is that most officials visit only Kabul, which boasts a Thai restaurant, internet cafes and a beauty school sponsored by American cosmetics companies. (For a while you could even get a decent cappuccino, but then the sole espresso machine blew up amid the vagaries of power supply.) The air may be filled with hammering, but the new buildings are mostly offices and guest houses for the 1,500-plus aid agencies that have sprung up. Many Afghans continue to live in bombed-out buildings with no windows or roofs.

Although the international community pledged $4.5bn to rebuild Afghanistan at a conference in Tokyo two years ago, Karzai's office says that less than $1bn has actually been received for reconstruction - this is roughly the amount the US spends monthly in Iraq. International donors will gather in Bonn this month to "reaffirm their commitment", but they are unlikely to come up with anything near the $28bn that Ashraf Ghani, the finance minister, says the country needs.

Afghanistan has the world's highest maternal and infant mortality rates, with one in four children dying by the age of five. In Kabul, two-thirds of the population do not have access to clean water, while 80 per cent have no sewage facilities.

If that is the plight in the capital, things are far worse in the mountains and deserts, where no aid has reached. Remembering the promises of Messrs Bush and Blair, many Afghans feel angry that their nation is not being rebuilt, pointing out that until that happens, there will always be havens for extremists.

The urgency of the situation was emphasised by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in a report to the General Assembly in December. He warned that "the international community must decide whether to increase its level of involvement in Afghanistan or risk failure".

Everyone in Afghanistan agrees that the key to stability is expanding the peacekeeping force outside Kabul. Most Afghans welcome foreign troops, seeing them as the best guarantors of peace in a nation rife with Kalashnikovs and warlords.

After endless pleading from Karzai, Nato, which provides a force of roughly 6,000, finally agreed last August to extend its activities outside the capital. Yet since then nothing has happened, basically because the US does not want foreign troops interfering with its hunt for Bin Laden.

The critical problem is that the US continues to follow two contradictory policies in Afghanistan. While claiming it wants to develop the country and back the Karzai government, its agents on the ground are still handing out dollars to provincial warlords in return for local intelligence.

Also unhelpful is the excessive force often used by US troops. A report by Human Rights Watch published this month criticised what it called "cowboy-like tactics against people who generally turn out to be law-abiding citizens". Using grenades to blow open doors rather than knocking is not guaranteed to win hearts and minds. Nor is bombing wedding processions, or killing nine children, as US warplanes did in December. The report concludes: "Having gone to war to combat terrorism and remove the oppressive Taliban regime, the US is now undermining efforts to restore the rule of law and endangering the lives of civilians."

One way it is doing this is by turning a blind eye to drug smugglers. This is highly embarrassing for Britain, which oversees the anti-narcotics programme. Opium production spiralled to 3,600 tonnes last year: this is 76 per cent of world production, and back at levels before the Taliban banned it.

A similarly effective scheme is the American-run programme to create a national army, seen as crucial to asserting central government authority. Of 10,000 men recruited, more than 2,500 have quit. The force left is risible compared with those of the warlords: Ismael Khan alone claims to have a personal militia of 30,000. Some deserters blame the low pay of $70 a month, others the fear that their families will be targets for Taliban attacks.

The belief that the outside world is interested in Afghanistan only for its own ends is shared by the poor, untrained Afghans used as actors in the movie Osama, which won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film in January. A big hit in Washington, its fans include the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, who said it "will teach you why President Bush is right about waging war on terrorists until there are no more of them".

The film might teach something else about how promises do not always translate into a better life. Marina Gulbahari, the 13-year-old girl who plays the main character, was discovered begging on the streets of Kabul. Despite the film's success, journalists recently found her living in the same one-room mud house and her brother and sister out begging to support the family.

Before Christmas, I spent a week with American soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division in a desolate place called Shkin, on the borders of Waziristan. Bin Laden is thought to have been hiding here, in what one American military spokesman called "the most evil place on earth". The local hostility is tangible: "night-letters" stuck up on buildings in nearby villages offer $1,000 bounties for the heads of Afghans working with the Americans and $5,000 for each US soldier.

The troops were fresh-faced young men who spoke earnestly about wiping out terrorism to make the world a safer place for their kids - although there were the usual rednecks desperate to "zap the enemy". Out on patrol, they tossed packets of M&Ms to local children who had learned the word "candy". The little boys had old men's faces and their clothes were ragged and encrusted with dirt. None wore shoes or went to school.

The feeling that life has not improved in these areas since the fall of the Taliban may determine who wins the war on terror. "What we do here trying to find Bin Laden and the top guys is futile if we don't do anything at the grass roots to improve the lot of civilians," said one member of the special forces. "No one is really going to collaborate with us, because at the end of the day they don't believe we will stick around, while the bad guys will."

Or as a Taliban spokesman put it recently: "America has got the watches, but the Taliban has the time."

Christina Lamb is the author of The Sewing Circles of Herat: my Afghan years (Flamingo, £7.99), runner-up for the annual Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award