The other day I drove out to visit Nurallah, a member of my cooperative who had just lost his mother. His house lies a few miles outside Kandahar on the ancient road to India—the very place where Afghanistan was founded. From the sturdy beaten-earth walls of the compound, the lines of tawny Kandahar shrink to insignificance against the backdrop of the rocky hills beyond, etched in purple against the sky.

Enough children to fill a schoolroom crowded around me, clutching my hand to kiss, as I settled cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. The four strapping sons of that beloved matriarch seemed like lost children too, faces crumpled by the blow of her passing.

Nurallah’s mother died of a stroke. In a way, that was a happiness, a sign of improving times. For a woman who lost her husband and two sons during the Soviet occupation, a woman who spent 12 years as a refugee in Pakistan, a woman whose youngest son was drafted by the Taliban to fight in northern Afghanistan and almost perished when U.S. proxies there sealed him and other prisoners in a cargo container in November 2001—for such a woman to die in her bed was not a foregone conclusion.

“You came alone?” Najib, his round cherub’s head crowned with a glinting turban, smiled as I nodded. “Yesterday, Red Daoud came. He’s our relative. He had four armed bodyguards with him—two on a motorcycle following his truck. I told him, ‘We have a friend, a woman. She drives out here alone.’ ”

A few months ago, I probably would not have done so.

In a context of increasing danger and violence—which reached a pitch last fall when open battles between Taliban fighters and Afghan and international troops were fought at the gates of Kandahar—the situation in this very symbolic southern capital of Afghanistan has indeed stabilized a bit. Village families that fled the fighting to camp out in the cramped homes of relatives in town have returned to their vineyards and orchards. Kandahar streets are crowded again—if somewhat tentatively—with the jolly chaos of late-model SUVs, caparisoned horse-drawn taxis, dark-green pickup trucks loaded with police officers, battered white station wagons, brightly painted rickshaws, vegetable wagons, donkey carts, dust, and smog.

And yet, after five years here I have learned to mistrust the weekly or monthly fluctuations in atmospheric pressure, seeking instead to discern the underlying pattern. And that pattern is not encouraging.

Permit me first to dispel a common misconception. This city where I live and work is Kandahar, Afghanistan, which since September 2001 has come to symbolize (at least for Americans) the forces of evil and obscurantism—enemies of our “enlightened civilization.” Kandahar, after all, was the lair of Mullah Muhammad Omar, where he cosseted his infamous “guest,” Osama bin Laden. Kandahar has arguably replaced Moscow as the ideological antipode to everything we Americans think we believe in. And yet the issues at stake here are not in the least ideological. They are practical—and opportunistic.

Ask a Kandahari what he wants from his government and you’ll get a familiar answer: not vast ideas but practical solutions to everyday problems. Most Kandaharis would put basic law and order at the top of their list, then public utilities and infrastructure, education, timely performance of administrative functions (such as delivery of driver’s licenses and title deeds), freedom from arbitrary shakedowns by public officials, and some mechanism to afford them a voice in their collective destiny.

But in more than five years in Afghanistan, the American government, which considers its presence here a part of its broad effort to “bring democracy to the Middle East,” has achieved none of these things.

Recently I was invited to the military base outside Kandahar to brief some visiting members of the Canadian parliament. The place is the size of a small town now, its borders delimited by stern chain-link fences crowned with spirals of razor wire. The buildings inside, some made of plywood, some pre-fab containers resting in a bed of gravel and stacked two or three high, contain the headquarters of half a dozen countries. In a long skirt and mud-spattered heels cracked out for the occasion, I sat in an upstairs room opposite about ten defense spokesmen and spokeswomen (who to my chagrin were uniformed for their exotic outing in hiking boots and cargo pants). I talked about corruption in the distribution of reconstruction aid, and how projects need to be monitored down to the very last detail of their completion.

One MP tilted her head at me, looking almost cross: “But what proof do you have? We’re being told that the ministries our development agency is working with are honest. Who should we believe?”

The question left me speechless for a moment: I didn’t know where to begin.

I run a tiny agribusiness, called Arghand. We are a cooperative of men and women who manufacture lush-lathered soap for export. We use the region’s legendary agricultural bounties: sweet almond oil, which we extract from nuts grown in the cragged province of Urozgan to the north of here; apricot-kernel oil from the pits of fruit gathered up in the orchards of the leafy Arghandab district; the bright-green oils of cumin and anise seed; and perfumes we distill from rose petals and herbs. We color our hand-molded bars with dyes from roots that grow in the vineyards around Kandahar. The idea is to expand the market for licit local agriculture, thus competing, in our way, with the opium poppy, whose trade is at a record high.

We use just three raw materials that we do not produce ourselves. We buy lye crystals by the gunnysack in Kabul. But our palm and coconut oils have to be pure, and the stuff available in Afghanistan stinks of artificial butter. So a while back, I sent a man to Pakistan to buy us a six-month supply of base oils.

Rather than have him dispatch the shipment to the border, where friends of ours from local tribes could whisk it across at the cost of a couple of dollars passed to friends of theirs in uniform, I decided to do it all legally and have our goods sent to Kandahar customs.

When word came that they had arrived, three male cooperative members bounded up from morning tea, eager for the challenge. But after five hours of fruitless struggle, they were back in our atelier, seething. “We decided to drop it,” said Abd al-Ahad, “and at least come back and make a batch of soap, so the whole day wasn’t wasted.”

Kandahar customs is a large vacant lot with a wall around it at the gates of town, a shed in the middle for storing goods, and some glittery buildings dotted here and there, in one of which the head of customs presides in more dignity than the governor himself. At the first office the guys had to report to, a swarm of freelance intermediaries alighted on them, urging them to relinquish their paperwork: they’d work the system for us. The cost would be about $20, half our duty, much of which the intermediaries would share with the countless customs agents who would pass our papers hand to hand. I was not there that day, so I did not see the bills stuffed into pockets, but I have seen it in Kabul.

“There are three of us,” Nurallah, who set aside his police uniform last year to join our cooperative, told the buzzing swarm. “We don’t need you.” The intermediaries sniggered.

The upshot was that our oil was labeled food, though we make soap with it and had brought supporting documents. The Arghand men were sent to the director of public health, who said that the oil had to be dispatched to Kabul for testing, which would take at least a month. In a corner of his office stood a jumbled stack of goods—oil, sweets, biscuits—all supposedly samples on their way to Kabul. The official said our only recourse was to bring an order from the governor.

“By God, I’ll bring the governor himself!” I swore when I heard the tale. And phoned him up. Masochist, he always takes my calls. I have harangued the Kandahar governor about corruption on a number of occasions, for I think it is key to what is going wrong here. His pat response is that it’s impossible to prove corruption, because the victims are complicit: they want their tasks accomplished, so they won’t denounce officials. But when I called him, he gave me an appointment for the next morning.

When I arrived a motley pack of characters were taking their ease in the armchairs arrayed around his audience chamber: the new chief of police in his olive uniform, a former commander of dire reputation from the civil war of the early 1990s, a notorious opium trafficker dressed in spotless black and white, the mayor, the head of the land office (who with the mayor was known to traffic in public acreage), and the quite decent former commander of an army contingent.

“You want proof of corruption?” I stormed. “There’s a stack of goods halfway to the ceiling in the public-health chief’s office. Come with me and see it. Be like Harun ar-Rashid”—the ninth-century Arab caliph famous for inspecting the bazaar incognito. “It will make your reputation.” With an indulgent smile, the governor ordered up the head of criminal investigations at the Kandahar police to accompany us back to customs. And so our goods were speedily cleared.

That wasn’t my objective. My naive objective was to expose the rot that is poisoning the Afghan government, and to help force a cure. But rather than take action against the officials we introduced him to, the skinny, droopy-mustached police official made excuses for them. “What can he do?” shrugged Nurallah. “It’s not one person, it’s everyone.”

Nurallah was right. The extortion is everywhere. As a member of this community, I encounter it constantly. The modus operandi rarely varies: endless bureaucratic delays when bribes aren’t paid. It took six months to get our cooperative registered. Hardy souls who have built factories at the new industrial park outside town have still not wrested title deeds from the mayor, though they paid almost twice the price the central government set for industrial land in May 2006. If you want an electricity meter, just pay a power-department employee a bribe of $100. A friend is fighting to repossess her family’s house in Kabul. Her father was executed by the Soviets in their brutally efficient decapitation of Afghan society in the early 1980s, and the family fled. The supposed deed of sale that the current squatter brandishes was signed allegedly by her father, on a date well after his death. The court expert acknowledged as much to my friend on the phone but demanded $6,000 to write it up as a forgery.

Some urge me to swallow my outrage: bribery and corruption are the Afghan way. I refuse to accept such stereotypes. Every society is composed of diverse tendencies, and it is specific historical events that bring one or another to the fore. In this case, the historical event was America’s post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan—our effort to transform an entire society without bothering to understand it in the first place.

Our first error was to subordinate every other concern to a cowboys-and-Indians-style hunt for al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership—a hunt that has thus far proved singularly fruitless. We collected a posse of former anti-Soviet commanders who had been repudiated by the Afghan population for their rapacious and bloody-minded behavior after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Because we believed them essential to our hunt, we installed these thugs in positions of local power, bolstered them with the priceless weight of our partnership—made unmistakable to ordinary folk by the uniforms we issued to their militiamen, the guns we armed them with, and the bricks of cash we delivered to their homes and offices. We quashed President Hamid Karzai’s early timid efforts to bring the new strongmen to heel, by working around the power-sharing arrangements he devised and telling him we would not support his 2003 decision to fire half a dozen governors. When these officials and their henchmen began diverting international aid to their pockets and shaking down their fellow citizens for the loose change in theirs, we tended to look the other way. Elections, supposedly marking the progress of democracy, only served to legitimize the power of men widely known to be criminals. “We’ll worry about governance later,” I would hear from international officials. “Now we have to focus on security.”

But in my view it is precisely this decision to ignore good governance and cultivate criminality that has led to the disastrous security conditions in the Afghan south. The independent-minded Afghans relinquish sovereignty to a state apparatus reluctantly, and only for as long as the state can either cow them or be seen to be acting in their practical interests. The current Afghan government is doing neither. The only obvious alternative—or beneficiary of a protest vote—is the Taliban.

“Of course this kind of thing sends people into the arms of the Taliban!” Fayzullah exclaimed at my query, over a dinner of okra and omelets we were eating from a tablecloth on the floor of our common room. Fayzullah has hands like tools and a head as bony as the spine of hills that sticks up between Kandahar and his home amid the orchards of Arghandab. He was regaling me with stories of the wheat-seed distribution in his village, his voice still hot with the injustice of it. “This guy Ahmad Shah, he has a connection with the governor. They have a partnership in this!” Fayzullah’s face broke apart in the long-suffering grin Afghans adopt when they talk about the shenanigans of their leaders. He described Ahmad Shah’s phone call to the governor and repeated the words of the truck driver who said that his was one of 15 truckloads of wheat delivered after dark to Ahmad Shah’s house. Fayzullah and the other intended beneficiaries in the village did not see a grain.

This is another classic way that local leaders lay in fortunes: they set up private contracting companies to capture reconstruction projects; they position themselves as the intermediaries through which international aid must pass; then they distribute it—or not—as they please. The Afghan people are beside themselves.

One day, driving through Kandahar, Nurallah pointed out an old man to me. “See that greybeard?” he said. “He was head of the tailors’ union under the Taliban. They caught him extorting bribes, and they painted his face black and put a necklace of rotten eggplants on him and paraded him around town.”

I used to hear that under the Taliban, there was security in Kandahar. Now I hear that under the Taliban, there was no corruption—at least not where people could see it.

In other words, the cynical opportunism of government officials whom we helped usher into power is driving the Afghan people away from the current political experiment, and making more than a few of them nostalgic for the Taliban. It is not that the people frown on these officials’ love of freedom, or the Western values of their international backers. It is that the officials, rather than providing practical services, are busily engaged in the gang rape of Afghanistan. And we don’t seem to care.

Into this context of disappointment, insert the Taliban. I use the word “insert” advisedly. The violence in southern Afghanistan—which includes assassinations of public officials, suicide bombings against international troops, and pitched battles with Afghan and coalition forces—is not, in my view, primarily the work of a homegrown insurgency. Taliban fighters, though themselves Afghan, respond to a leadership that sits across the border in Pakistan—and not ferreted away in mountain warrens in some untamed tribal area but in and around the cities of Quetta and Peshawar, often in apartments provided by the Pakistani government. The identity and location of this leadership has been repeatedly demonstrated by the intelligence-gathering of Afghan and international officials, and by the admissions of captured terrorists.

These militants brandish an ideological vocabulary, but their agenda—determined by the Pakistani government—is practical. For 30 years, Pakistani officials have manipulated religious extremism to further ambitions that have nothing to do with faith and everything to do with regional power politics. Born into a rivalry with India, Pakistan has defined itself in opposition to its giant and culturally diverse neighbor. Religious prejudices have been the instrument of successive Pakistani rulers—including General Pervez Musharraf, who, then army chief of staff, sent jihadi militants and Pakistani soldiers posing as their fellows to invade Indian Kashmir in 1999.

Pakistani officials have long thought that the possession of Afghanistan by proxy would give their country extra weight in this contest with India. In Afghanistan, as in Kashmir, their proxies of choice were religious fanatics. Musharraf’s predecessors used covert U.S. cash to pump up the most radical Afghan resistance faction during the drawn-out 1980s war of Soviet occupation, at the expense of more moderate groups. When that Islamist commander failed to gain control of the country after the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistani military-intelligence agency set about orchestrating the Taliban “movement.” With intensive Pakistani military, economic, and diplomatic backing, the Taliban gained control over about 90 percent of Afghanistan by the summer of 2001. A Pakistani triumph.

The notion that a week of pressure by U.S. officials in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks would cause the Pakistani government to reverse such a time-honored policy was naive. Instead, in return for billions of dollars in U.S. financial aid, President Musharraf has played a deft and opportunistic double game. Every few months, he proves his anti-terror bona fides by arresting an al Qaeda figure. It is a relatively cost-free way of lulling Washington, for al Qaeda was never Musharraf’s implement of choice for meddling in Afghanistan; the Taliban were. And he and his military-intelligence agency have been energetically rebuilding the Taliban since shortly after their fall in December 2001.

The evidence for this abounds. It can be seen in the faces of Taliban whom Pakistani soldiers usher into Afghanistan at main border crossings. It can be seen in the open distributions of weapons and motorcycles at madrasas in the border town of Chaman. It can be seen in the Pakistani army officers training militant recruits; and in the sophisticated weaponry found by NATO soldiers after battles near Kandahar last fall.

U.S. soldiers stationed here make no bones about it. “If we were going to invade Pakistan, I’d sign up for another rotation,” one military-police officer remarked to me in 2003, as I was waiting in the shade of his bunker for an escort to get on base. “We all feel that way,” said another officer a few days later. “The Pakistani border is just an imaginary line keeping us from doing our job.”

“What I want to know,” the struggling owner of a small factory said to me just this winter, “is why America is supporting Pakistan when Pakistan is working against America.”

Beats me, I wanted to reply. I have always assumed that in the post-9/11 pinch, we simply carried over a Cold War alliance—blindly recalling the time when Pakistan was our partner in making Afghanistan a trap for the Soviet Union. But the equation is now so perplexing to Kandaharis that the vast majority of them are convinced the United States is secretly in league with the Taliban, in one of those convoluted and deceitful alliances that have plagued South Asian history.

It is only now, as the Bush administration seems to be whipping up pretexts for war with Iran, that I think I may discern a further reason. Perhaps the Bush administration’s extraordinary gentleness with Pakistan—a terrorist state if there ever was one—fits into long-incubated plans for conflict with Iran. If the United States were to launch yet a third Middle Eastern war in less than a decade, it would be heavily dependent on Muslim allies in the region, critical among them Pakistan. And I suspect that Pakistan is opportunistically exploiting this American obsession with Iran, just as it has skillfully exploited the American obsession with al Qaeda, to pursue its own agenda in Afghanistan.

About a week after Nurallah’s mother died, his wife gave birth to a baby girl. “I had to go to a neighbor woman for help delivering her,” Nurallah told me with a mournful shake of his head, his fresh wound reopened. “For how many years did my mother rush out to other women’s houses in the dead of night?”

Nurallah’s mother, a pillar of her small community, could have contributed so much more had she not been forced to live out her entire life buffeted by the violent forces of regional and even global politics utterly beyond her control. Now her son, creative and disciplined and big-hearted, has already resigned his commission in the Afghan police because he can not bear the unprofessionalism, the disrespect, the outright thievery tolerated in its ranks. Arghand, he says, offers him a glimmer of a future. The cooperative has provided his family a solar-powered water pump, which, in addition to the roses we need, irrigates about 750 grape vines. Nurallah and the other cooperative members have recruited neighbors to grow more roses. “At Arghand,” Nurallah says, “I’m someone.” He has never experienced such a collaborative decision-making process before. “There isn’t a system like ours anywhere in Afghanistan. Not in the presidential palace!” Now, every day after work, he rides his bicycle to an English class, and at 26 he is about to enroll in high school. Just days before his mother died, he asked for her blessing to complete his education and go to college—a monumental ambition here. And yet Nurallah risks seeing his capacities wasted as hers were.

As I watch policy decisions once again subordinate the needs and desires of the Afghan people to some regional calculus, and unscrupulous grandees up and down the Afghan governmental ladder busily extracting profit from our diverted attention, I can only feel a cold foreboding as to what new dangers for us all this place may be nurturing.