Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 17:03 UK

Taleban at Kabul's doorstep

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Wardak

Taleban militants on bikes near Wardak
Taleban claim they control three quarters of Wardak

It is just an hour's drive south-west of Kabul on Afghanistan's main highway before you start to see dramatic evidence of how the insurgency is closing in on the capital.

The first thing to notice are the holes in the road - the tarmac ripped up by bombs - which the traffic has to carefully veer around.

Then it is the burned-out skeletons of trucks left by the side of the road, or some still standing where they were ambushed and burned - an obvious reminder of how security so close to Kabul has been steadily deteriorating.

Highway One was a triumph for Afghanistan's new found freedom from the Taleban.

Built at record speed with international money, it was an example of what was to follow in the rebuilding and redevelopment of a country at war for almost three decades.

Now it is almost impassable in places as buses loaded high with goods and people, or convoys of containers with supplies for international forces have to negotiate the damage and the debris.

'Valid target'

An hour before we were escorted along the road by a heavily armed police convoy, an Afghan National Army patrol had fought with insurgents after being ambushed.

Every seven or eight kilometres (four to five miles) there is a crater in the road where a hidden explosive device had been detonated as whatever the insurgents decreed a "valid target" had gone past.

A crater on the Kabul-Kandahar road in Wardak
Highway One is full of craters made by landmines

Wardak is the neighbouring province to Kabul and in just one month 51 trucks were burned. But the new governor, in place less than a month, thinks he can get a grip on security.

"The government has 100% control in Wardak, and the Taleban are in a very poor condition in this province - they do not have the support of the people," said Mohammad Halim Fidai, the eloquent and well-educated new arrival.

"Some of the incidents that took place on the highways are because we did not have enough Afghan National Police and there is misinformation against us," he said, explaining there were now checkpoints in the areas Taleban fighters "from other provinces" were most likely to strike.

But the men in the hills, just 2km from the road, told a different story of who held power and influence.

A local BBC reporter visited districts close to the main road and to the more remote villages up in the mountains.

Brazen display

He met a Taleban commander who took him to film perhaps two dozen men, all heavily armed and parading on motorbikes, in daylight, within view of Highway One.

"I have 6,000 fighters," the commander said, "and control three quarters of Wardak province."

It was a massive exaggeration, but their brazen display by day was a strong sign of how much influence the insurgents have by night.

The Taleban commander in Wardak
The Taleban commander in Wardak says he has 6,000 fighters

That presence and the "misinformation" they spread will help them appear stronger than they are in reality - and fighting an insurgency, that is what counts.

The terror tactics, attacking convoys and leaving bombs, splits the people from a government which does not have a strong enough presence to win the people's backing.

Our reporter spoke to many local people - a lot supported the Taleban, but they would perhaps be afraid to speak out otherwise, given their presence on the ground. Others were critical.

"All the Taleban did was provide security," one young man said with a couched compliment. "Now the Karzai government is building roads and bringing development. Unfortunately they cannot bring security."

Another villager was more upbeat: "In my view this government is better than the Taleban as there was no education, economy or development.

"Now the economy is good and children are going to school - even girls - the Taleban were brutal and took power by force, not democracy."

And it is not just the local people who are suffering - those aid workers trying to rebuild and redevelop Afghanistan are now increasingly unable to work in parts of the country.

'Extremely risky'

A recent statement by 100 aid agencies described the worsening security close to Kabul, and in neighbouring Logar province six landmine clearers were recently abducted - as if it wasn't a risky enough job to begin with.

The UN produces internal "accessibility" maps which colour code areas by level of risk.

Burned out trucks on the road near Kabul
The trucks are a reminder of how security near Kabul has deteriorated

A comparison between 2005 and June 2008 shows the dramatic deterioration of security in such a short space of time.

Almost half the country is now "extremely risky" for UN staff - a classification that did not even appear on the map legend three years earlier.

Kabul is ringed by areas classified as a "high risk/volatile environment", previously reserved for only the worst insurgent areas in the east and south.

"Security in itself is a challenge. There are places where our de-miners cannot go because of the security risk," said Dr Mohammad Haider Reza, the head of the UN Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan.

"It's as close to Kabul as Logar and that's of a concern to us," he added, saying the six abducted men had been released but their vehicles and equipment had been taken.

The Taleban's tactics are all part of the war - sowing fear in the minds of the people to turn them against a government that cannot protect them.

But the threat is real and the attacks are getting closer to the capital.

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