KABUL, Afghanistan — Ghulam Farooq Hussainkhel lives on the outskirts of the Afghan capital in the latest district to fall under Taliban influence. A teacher, Hussainkhel moved last year from a neighboring district after surviving three Taliban assassination attempts for opening two girls' schools.
Taliban forces now occupy positions just five miles away from his home in Charasayab and terrorize his neighbors at night with demands that they house and feed their forces.
Hussainkhel, 53, fears they could one day force him to close the school system he now runs in the modest suburb south of Kabul, a one-street town at the base of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The Taliban, however, isn't the biggest security threat, he said. It's the criminal gangs who roam the capital, kidnapping middle-class citizens for ransom.
"Ordinary citizens are more afraid of the criminals than the Taliban. It takes a long time before the Taliban and the Islamic Party can control an area. But the criminal groups can move in right away. They want to harass the educated people," said Hussainkhel, who has been a teacher for 31 years.
Kabul's growing crime problem is more than a security issue — it's a sign of a failing government. If government security forces — whom many charge with complicity in the crime wave — can't protect the populace from thugs, how can they protect remote parts of the country from an increasingly armed, financed and organized Taliban, residents say. More U.S. troops around the capital may not be the answer.
Residents have lived under Taliban control before and they know how to measure its influence, they said. They can cut deals. Criminal gangs roaming the streets, however, are new.
Independent observers said that there have been roughly 200 kidnappings here so far this year, but that's a fraction of the real total, since most go unreported. Some kidnappings are linked to the Taliban, the ransom financing their forces or arming their men.
"The kidnapping has helped finance the Taliban and at the same time damages the credibility of the government," said Fazlullah Mujadidi, a member of parliament who represents Logar province, which borders Kabul and where the Taliban has made some of its biggest gains.
The Afghan government, however, refuses to admit there's a problem. Gen. Alishah Pakteawal, the director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, has been the target of several assassination attempts, including a botched poisoning by a suspected criminal gang. And in the past three years, at least seven of his bodyguards have been killed in bombings and shootings aimed at him in what most suspect are attacks by gangs.
According to Pakteawal's statistics, only 10 people were kidnapped in Kabul in the first nine months of the year, eight of them released thanks to his police officers.
He scoffs at claims of police corruption and minimizes the fact businessmen in Kabul often walk only with armed bodyguards: "So what?" he said. "In every country, businessmen travel with guards."
Pakteawal himself relies on private guards for protection — none in a police uniform: "Trust me, the police are getting better," he said. "The people should trust them."
However, frustration is growing and complaints are multiplying about a government that seems increasingly incompetent. Water pressure levels are at their lowest levels in years, electricity is down to a couple of hours a day and the lines of people outside the Iranian and Indian embassies desperate for visas are growing daily.