Last summer, Shahida Hussain was pounding the dusty streets of Kandahar campaigning for Parliament in defiance of Taliban threats. Now this outspoken woman rarely leaves her house for fear of getting caught up in the violence engulfing Afghanistan's southern city.
"Six months ago things were better, but security gets worse day after day. Our children cannot go to school and we've stopped going out," says Ms. Hussain, who would only agree to an interview at a hotel for fear of having foreign visitors at her home.
Her family is no longer sending her granddaughter to school because they are afraid she will be attacked en route, if not by the Taliban then by criminals who are in league with an increasingly corrupt government that is profiting from the country's rampant drug trade. "Corruption is the number one reason behind the rising violence," says Hussain.
As violence in southern Afghanistan reaches its worst levels since 2001, a chorus of Afghan officials, security experts, and Coalition commanders share Hussain's basic assessment. While the Taliban are fighting with greater vigor, the violence ultimately has more to do with the failures of government, they say.
"Tribalism is right at the core of how this society works, and how narcotics works. Add to that land, water feuds, and drugs. It is a hugely complex morass and 80 percent of it is not about the insurgency," says Brig. Ed Butler, the commander of British forces in Afghanistan. "Weak government is the issue.... We need to supply the security bubble that will give the time and space for the political process to develop."
That security bubble appears to have shrunk over the past year, and demanded a rising price from Coalition forces. This week, more than 250 people were killed in a string of pitched battles in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province. Most of the dead were insurgents but two French soldiers, an American, and a Canadian soldier were also killed in the fighting.
The Taliban have become far more daring, infiltrating areas where they have not been seen for over four years in large numbers. Some of the worst fighting this week was in Panjwayi district, less than 20 miles from the heart of Kandahar, which has left aid agencies able to operate only within the gates of Afghanistan's second largest city.
Monday, Coalition forces reported that an airstrike late Sunday in Panjwayi district killed up to 80 suspected Taliban militants. Kandahar's governor told reporters that 16 civilians also died. As the fighting heated up last week, villagers from the district could be seen carrying all their belongings on donkeys or packing them in cars and fleeing into Kandahar.
"It was an acknowledgment that the government could do nothing for them," says a western security expert in the south.
Rising troop numbers are aimed at bolstering the fledgling Afghan government. But with schools closing because of attacks, aid agencies unable to operate, and the police harassing villagers and threatening them as much as the Taliban, public patience is running out.
"This year we need to be seen to be making a difference. It is a real danger that if people do not feel safer in a year's time, we may lose their consent," Brigadier Butler says.
Many in Kandahar say the insurgency is being fed by frustration with an impotent and corrupt Afghan government that has failed to deliver reconstruction or security.
Villagers from Panjwayi said they are as frightened of the police, who regularly raid houses and strip them of valuables, as they are of Taliban militants.
"Afghan corruption is like a pressure cooker that has reached the exploding point. We have to take it off the gas," says Col. Mohammed Hussain, a representative of the Afghan Interior Ministry stationed with Canadian troops in Kandahar (and no relation to Shahida).
After five years, the promises to rebuild and retrain the police have proved hollow.
"Civilians are ready to cooperate with anti- government forces because they see that the government is rotten and can do nothing for them," Colonel Hussain says.
The spike in violence comes as NATO troops prepare to take control of security in the south from the US-led coalition. The move will double troop numbers in southern Afghanistan before August.
NATO commanders say the Taliban are stepping up the offensive in a bid to break popular support in troop- contributing nations.
Foreign troops can still draw upon reservoirs of goodwill here. In many parts of southern Afghanistan, memories of the civil war and the hard-line Taliban rule that followed are still fresh, and many residents remain willing to support the deployment of foreign troops.
But those memories are dimming.
"When the communist government was not good, the mujahideen came; when they failed, the Taliban came. I don't know who will come after this government, but it is losing the trust of the people," says Hussain.