In late March, while leaving Pol-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul, Mansoor Dadullah vowed he would fight against the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai with two Kalashnikovs and unreserved hatred.
The Afghan government swapped Dadullah and four other Taliban prisoners for an Italian reporter, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who was abducted in volatile Helmand Province by insurgents on 6 March.
Now appointed as the Taliban's supreme commander, after the death of his brother Mullah Dadullah - a one-legged guerrilla fighter who was known for his indiscriminate beheadings - Mansoor now commands insurgents in the south of Afghanistan where thousands of people, including civilians, have died in 2007.
In volatile Helmand Province, in the south of Afghanistan, Ahmadullah, 23, told IRIN that siding with insurgents against the weak administration of Hamid Karzai and his Western supporters had become an indisputable personal commitment for him.
"I lost my family in an air strike on our village in April this year," the young man said, adding that nothing had come of his tribe's pleas to investigate his family's death.
Another young man in Gherishk District, in the north of Helmand Province, presented a dual rationale for his decision to join the Taliban.
"This government is corrupt, oppressive and a puppet of the Americans and it is my Islamic obligation to stand against it. If we win the war we will establish Islamic rule in the country, but if I die I will go to heaven," said Abdul Bari, 27, who has never been to school.
Hashem Watanwal, an outspoken member of parliament (MP) from central Uruzgan Province, said he had no doubt many people disagreed with Karzai's government, particularly Pashtoons in the south, west and east of the country.
"People have no choice but to join the Taliban," said Watanwal who also explained why Pashtoons were drawing closer to the Taliban.
"Life has got far worse for the people of Uruzgan since Karzai took over. Insecurity is rampant, corruption is endemic, reconstruction and development is absent, poverty has deepened and people do not have access even to very basic services," said the MP who recently visited his impoverished constituency.
Immediately after the Taliban were removed from power in October 2001, the international aid community pledged to help rebuild Afghanistan.
Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
|An empty and devastated Bazaar in Helmand Province|
While over US$10 billion in aid money has reportedly been spent in the country since 2002, the Afghan government has been unable to establish a meaningful presence in large swaths of its territory, predominately in the south and east, say analysts.
In the absence of a central and provincial authority to effectively enforce law and order and protect civilians from insurgents and criminal gangs, many rural communities have fallen prey to a resurgent armed Taliban.
"If we defy the Taliban and do not comply with their demands, no one will be there to protect us from their wrath," said one local man in the insurgency-affected Helmand Province.
Rebels have repeatedly beheaded and murdered locals whom they suspect are government spies or collaborators.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, told IRIN on the phone that Muslims around the world support their `jihad’ against US and British crusaders in Afghanistan.
"Allah has told us in the Koran to fight and sacrifice our lives against crusaders and their collaborators," he said.
|They [the Taliban] have selectively mixed Shariah, Afghan traditions, `Pashtunwali’ [Pashtoon tribal code], politics and self-interest to produce propaganda more palatable than the futile metaphor 'hearts and minds' chanted by US officials.|
Many Taliban strongly believe there will be an ultimate divine victory for their `jihad’ against the USA and its Western allies, as was the case against Soviets in 1980s.
An overwhelming majority of rural Afghans are illiterate but nevertheless support Shariah (Islamic law) and conservative traditions, and Taliban propaganda is having an effect on Pashtoons.
"They [the Taliban] have selectively mixed Shariah, Afghan traditions, `Pashtunwali’ [Pashtoon tribal code], politics and self-interest to produce propaganda more palatable than the futile metaphor 'hearts and minds' chanted by US officials," said Shukria Barakzai, a democracy activist and MP in the lower house of Afghan parliament.
According to numerous media reports, in the last seven months alone, over 8,000 people have died in insurgency related violence, of which over 1,000 have been non-combatants.
Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
|Smoke rises from a house after clashes in the Nawzad District of Helmand Province|
Afghan officials have conceded that the Taliban control several districts in Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Ghazni provinces.
In the rest of the country insurgents have gradually expanded their campaign through suicide attacks, abductions and propaganda.
Afghan and international human rights watchdogs, the UN and several other organisations have repeatedly accused the Taliban of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
As insecurity and violence escalate in their homeland many Afghans are losing confidence in a peace and reconstruction process that was initiated in Bonn, Germany, less than six years ago.
The question many Afghans have started asking is: What will happen if the Taliban rebels gain more power?