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While clashes in remote Helmand dominate the headlines, another battle is being waged by the insurgents on Kabul's doorstep. There, the Taliban are winning support by building a parallel administration, which is more effective, more popular and more brutal than the government's
A man chops wood at a checkpoint on the Kabul to Kandahar road. Photograph: David Trilling/Corbis
Ismatullah stood at the crossroads in the dusty Afghan town of Maidan Shah, squinted in the blinding noon sun and stroked his long, grey beard. 'What the governor said in our meeting was very good,' he said diplomatically. 'He quoted the Koran very correctly. But I am not sure how much power he has. Now I am going home - and the Taliban control my district, not him.'
The tribal elder lives only a few miles from Maidan Shah, in a part of Afghanistan which, until a few months ago, was considered under the authority of President Hamid Karzai's central government. Maidan Shah is a typical Afghan town - a scruffy huddle of mechanics' workshops, stalls selling out-of-date Iranian jam, the charred frames of two fuel trucks burnt out in a recent insurgent attack, and a clutch of battered barrows from which destitute farmers in rags sell bruised apples and tiny brown pomegranates. A dozen men lie on the flat floor of the single restaurant amid clouds of flies, sip smeared glasses of tea and stare hard at strangers.
Follow the main road back towards the Afghan capital and in 15 minutes you will be at the narrow pass in the ring of craggy, dusty hills around the city known for centuries as 'the Gates of Kabul'. If there is a front line between the insurgents and the government, it is here, just a dozen miles south of the capital. There is no clear front line, of course - which is part of the problem.