By JASON STRAZIUSO
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
Afghan patients sleep near a private heathcare center in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday, Nov. 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- For Ata Mohammad, who lost 19 members of his family during a fight between NATO and Taliban militants, the choices ahead are bleak.
He has no particular wish to join the Taliban. He could support NATO and President Hamid Karzai's government, but feels betrayed by the violence in the Panjwayi district he lives in. His other options include becoming a refugee in Pakistan or Iran.
Many in Kandahar say their confidence in the government is falling, and some say that is helping fuel support for the Taliban.
"Should we join the Taliban? Should we join the government? We don't know," Mohammad said. "The Taliban, they are causing problems for us, but the government is causing problems for us too."
"We can hardly feed our family bread. We are struggling for our life," he said. "And with the Taliban and the government and NATO fighting, we are victims, too."
Many in southern Afghanistan had high hopes after the election of their fellow Pashtun tribesman Karzai in 2004, but two years later remain mired in poverty and lamenting a lack of security and development in the south.
Heavy-handed NATO tactics, including recent airstrikes in Panjwayi that killed civilians - and hundreds of suspected militants - have only deepened suspicion of foreign forces attempting to crush a resurgent Taliban resistance five years after its hardline regime was ousted for hosting Osama bin Laden.
Mohammad Eisah Khan, a former judge and a tribal elder in Kandahar with a long, white beard, rattled off the reasons support for the government is slipping.
"There is no security, the people are not safe," he said. The government "is plagued by corruption. There is no education. There are very few schools. There are no good doctors in Kandahar province."
The Afghan government is facing a "crisis of legitimacy" because many appointed administrators "are quite simply thugs," said Joanna Nathan, the Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.
Gauging support for the government or for an insurgent militia known for its suicide attacks and roadside bombs is difficult in a country with no reliable way of conducting opinion polls. Nathan said most Taliban fighters are not ideologically driven but pick up arms as the result of disillusionment or powerlessness.
"Taliban sympathizers are increasing day by day," said Abdul Wadood, a jobless 55-year-old who last year moved his family out of the Panjwayi district, an hour's drive from Kandahar.
"Eighty percent of the people out in the districts support the Taliban. Every house has a fighter in it supporting the Taliban. If the government comes, they just put down their weapons," he said.
Western and Afghan officials say only a few Taliban backers support the fighters' hard-line ideology. Poppy growers tacitly support the Taliban because of the protection they provide, and others are only looking for a paying job or are coerced.
Kandahar's governor, Asadullah Khalid, said all Afghans want a "good life and peaceful life and want a good future for their children," which does not include supporting the Taliban.
But if the Taliban enter a remote village "and say they want food, and if they (villagers) don't give you food, they will kill you, what would you do?" he said.
Kandahar's streets have more horses and buggies than the shiny SUVs so common in Kabul that signal the presence of foreign aid workers. A local member of parliament, Khalid Pashtun, said Taliban fighters can also now walk the streets here - something they could not do two years ago.
It's a sign, he says, of the government's weakness. He estimates that only 30 percent of the people in the Kandahar area support the government.
"But that doesn't mean 70 percent support the Taliban," he said. "They hate the Taliban for sure. They will bring back their strict lifestyle. They will ban music, they will ban TV, they will ban women's rights. The people have already tasted these things, they don't want to go back."
Associated Press reporter Noor Khan contributed to this report.