Asif Khan sits on a dirty, once-white blanket in an abandoned cinema and fights back tears of desperation.
He can't find a job for his eldest son, who "even knows computers," without paying a bribe. He can't afford uniforms, books or pencils for his nine daughters to go to school. And so they all live with him in the old cinema, where mangled rebars dangle like tentacles from the ceiling and a cold wind whips through windows with no glass.
It's a long way from the optimism Khan felt when he returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan after the U.S. defeated the Taliban in 2001. Now, he says, "I have no hope."
As the U.S. and NATO mark 10 years of war in Afghanistan, a grim picture emerges from scores of interviews over six months across the country with ordinary Afghans, government officials, soldiers, and former and current Taliban, along with recent data. The difference between the often optimistic assessment of U.S. generals and the reality on the ground for Afghans is stark.
There are signs of progress _ an important one is that schools are open. More than 6 million children are in school today, according to the United Nations. During the Taliban, girls were denied schooling, and before that most schools were closed because of fighting. The media is also flourishing, with several newspapers, weekly magazines and 10 television channels in operation.
But for Afghans, it has been a decade of one step forward and two steps back.
Afghanistan is failing in two major areas in particular: Security and good government. Violence has gone up sharply this year with increasingly brazen attacks, and has spread to the once-peaceful north of the country. And widespread corruption is bedeviling attempts to create a viable Afghan government and institutions to take over when the U.S. and NATO leave in 2014.
"You know right now we have no idea who to be afraid of. We are afraid of everyone. Every street has its own ruler, own thugs," said Rangina Hamidi, the daughter of Kandahar mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi. "I don't feel safe going out of my house. To be honest I have no idea what will happen."
Just months after Hamidi spoke with the AP, her father was killed in a suicide bombing.
Recent portrayals of the Afghan war by U.S. generals have been cautiously positive. International forces released data last month saying violent attacks are down. The generals claim they have gained back land in the south, and that the morale of the Taliban is sinking.
"We ... have wrested the momentum from the enemies. ... It is clear that you (international forces) and our Afghan partners are putting unprecedented pressure on the enemies of a free and peaceful Afghanistan," CIA Director David Petraeus said in a July speech, while he was still commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But other reports challenged Petraeus' assessments. The International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, reported in August that more districts are in fact coming under Taliban control, as the insurgency spreads to areas seen until recently as safe.
Poll after poll shows that the biggest issue for Afghans is the lack of security. Even in southern Kandahar, the former Taliban headquarters where the U.S. generals claim to have made progress, violence is a part of life.
Ehsanullah Khan, who has run an education center for girls and boys in southern Kandahar for the last six years, says his life is constantly in danger. It's not just the Taliban, but ultraconservative government officials, tribal elders, even his neighbors who object to girls going to school. Khan says he will be killed if he leaves Kandahar, and is unsafe even within the city.
"I play hide and seek," he said. "Where is the security in this country? Where is freedom?"
There were 2,108 clashes and other violent incidents per month for the latest quarter, up 39 percent from the same period last year, according to the United Nations. And last year was the deadliest of the war for international troops, with more than 700 killed.
In recent months, brazen daylight attacks have been mounted with alarming regularity, including an assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in June, a 20-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in September and an attack that killed a CIA contractor at one of the agency's offices in Kabul, also in September.
In the north, a number of senior police chiefs and a governor have all been killed, among others. Last month, a suicide bomber killed former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the council tasked to talk peace with the Taliban.
The Northern Alliance, with whom the U.S. aligned in 2001, is secretly arming once again, according to former anti-Taliban fighters interviewed in northern Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley. Their information was privately confirmed by a top U.S. official.
And in the south, attacks have killed the mayor of Kandahar, the provincial police chief of Kandahar, the deputy governor of Kandahar province and the half brother of President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban also managed to dig a tunnel under the main prison in Kandahar earlier this year and free more than 400 prisoners, most of them Taliban fighters.
U.S. generals dismiss the attacks as signs of desperation within the Taliban ranks. But others say they show that a stronger insurgency can now infiltrate Afghan institutions and slip into parts of the capital, Kabul, under the tightest security control. The Taliban have also taken over highways, severely limiting people from moving around.
The Taliban have returned in part because Afghans have learned to expect little from a failed government and institutions wracked with corruption.
Moabullah, a Taliban fighter who would give only his first name, said that when the U.S. first entered Afghanistan a decade ago, the Taliban fled.
"We didn't even have a place in the mountains then," he said.
Like many Taliban foot soldiers, he returned to his village and tried to get some funding to start an irrigation project. But before long, local government officials who had been thrown out by the Taliban on charges of corruption five years earlier returned. They demanded money and weapons, and threatened to tell the Americans that Moabullah was Taliban. He escaped to Iran.
Two years later, he came back and returned to the Taliban. Now the Taliban are welcomed even in Kabul, he said, where residents give them food and water.
"People too soon saw how the foreigners behaved, doing night raids, checking homes with women inside and bombs killing innocent people and children," he said. "And now ... the Taliban are in government, in police. They are very strong today."
A national poll by the BBC and other media taken in 2009 found that 50 percent of Afghans said corruption among government officials or police had increased in the last year. About 63 percent said corruption was a big issue, compared with 45 percent a year earlier.
Ordinary Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes in 2009, according to a U.N. report _ roughly a quarter of the country's entire gross domestic product. On average a bribe runs about $160, a huge amount in a country where the average Afghan makes barely $425 a year, the report concluded.
Ainuddin, who runs a small shop on the ground floor below the abandoned cinema, says all the money in Afghanistan is going into the hands of warlords and government officials. Go to any government department, he said, and you pay a bribe.
He scratches his beard, heavy with dust and dirt. "When the Taliban left and all the foreigners came to Afghanistan, I thought there was nothing that could stop us," he said. "But all we have today is nothing."
President Karzai has been attacked for silently and steadily allowing corruption to take over his government. He has largely ignored calls to rein in corruption as well as international allegations of widespread fraud in his 2009 presidential campaign.
As the U.S. and NATO plan to leave, they are giving support to the newly formed Afghan Local Police, set up to supplement the national police and army in remote areas. But privately, NATO soldiers who are training these village police in some parts of Afghanistan throw up their hands in despair.
NATO trainer Paul, who spoke on condition of using only his first name, said corruption makes impossible even a modicum of professionalism in the force. The first loyalty of most recruits, he said, is to the local warlord.
The new security forces sometimes also make life miserable for the local people. Mohammed Ali, a soldier in the Afghan army, said his first mission in northern Kunduz province was to stop local security forces from terrorizing a village.
"The Afghan government has responded to the insurgency by reactivating militias that threaten the lives of ordinary Afghans," a September Human Rights Watch report said.
Ordinary Afghans fear a return to civil war after 2014, and blame both neighboring Pakistan and the U.S. and NATO for an emboldened Taliban.
"America is helping Pakistan, and Pakistan is helping the Taliban," said Hamidullah, an elderly resident of the northern Panjshir Valley who has seen war devastate his homeland.
Hamidi, the mayor's daughter in Kandahar, hears similar complaints about the U.S. and NATO, who are actively pushing reconciliation with the Taliban to find a non-military solution.
"More and more you hear the accusation that they are in bed with the Taliban," she said. "And sadly, it is a fact that many Afghans, men and women, say 'good for them' when a foreign soldier gets killed."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/kathygannon
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