Failing Afghan economy helping Taliban return to power

Afghanistan: The Taliban's new recruits
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Story highlights

  • Afghanistan's capital -- like the rest of the country -- lives with the threat from the Taliban
  • The country's failing economy has made it easier for the Taliban to recruit fighters

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN)My first impression: Wow! Clean and green. A Kabul I hardly recognize.

Where once we heaved through potholes, we now rolled along a majestic spread of smooth tarmac, bordered by miniature manicured lawns.
As we drove along the wide boulevard that links the airport to Afghanistan's capital city, it felt serene, surreal even. Even the young saplings along the side of the road oozed an atmosphere of new prosperity and hope.
But the obvious changes in Kabul since my last visit four years ago didn't mask the reality of life here. In August, a suicide attack by the Taliban near the entrance to the airport left five people dead and more than a dozen wounded. Bomb attacks are by no means rare.
Further into the city, the same airport road leads to the U.S. Embassy -- also a popular Taliban target. The route is considered so unsafe that U.S. Embassy personnel travel by helicopter rather than take their chances on the road their country's dollars likely built.

Faltering economy

The aura of an effervescent economy is just that. The dollars that paid for the roads and other projects that put Afghans in jobs has been drying up too, as foreign troops draw down and international investors head for the exit.
But the Taliban profit from the faltering economy. Recruitment has become a relatively easy sell.
Not just the "pocket money" as they call it, but the chance to skim from the many shakedowns and extortion rackets they have running.
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Several would-be recruits who talked to a local freelance cameraman working for CNN said the only reason they joined the Taliban was because they couldn't put food on the table.
"I want to join them because of the lack of jobs and my other economic problems," the first recruit told us.
The second man, who showed us his high school diploma, told us he'd been to university and still couldn't find a job. The Taliban offered him more than he could earn in the army, he claimed.
"I don't have anything to do with their viewpoints. My only reason to join them is my economical problems and unemployment," he added.
A seven-month Taliban veteran who was trying to convince the pair to join their fight told us he'd been working for a foreign company who let him go when they ran out of contracts. It wasn't long before he realized the Taliban were the only game in town, he said.
"I spent all my savings to feed my family and didn't have another source of income, so I joined them."

Kunduz shock

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As we drove around Kabul's streets the gloss of a better life seemed to have come tantalizingly close.
There are so many more shops and so many more bright lights than before. Stores are stacked neatly floor to ceiling with all manner of nuts and fruit. Pistachios, a big local favorite, and succulent raisins, raised and dried in the parched fields of Helmand.
But the good life, a better life, so sweet you can almost taste it, is increasingly out of reach.
Yesterday's casual shoppers and relaxed businessmen now have more pressing concerns. Not just an economy in turmoil but a resurgent Taliban. The recent fall of Kunduz, a major city of 300,000 people in the north of the country, has many wondering what will happen next, and whether the capital could eventually fall.
While the everyday threat of Taliban suicide bombers, and shootouts with government security forces, is nothing new in Kabul, no one was expecting what happened in Kunduz.
"Looking at the current security situation in Afghanistan, it is very much possible that the Taliban may get stronger and they may capture more places," the university graduate-turned potential Taliban militant told our cameraman.
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Even so, both recruits said the Taliban could lose its appeal if fortunes change and the government could find them jobs. They'd jump ship immediately.
It's not just bombs and bullets that will win this war, but business -- and plenty of it.
I was here when the seeds of commerce were being planted in the last decade. Back then Kabul was a greyer, darker place.
But just as the colors of brighter future are beginning to blossom, there's a real chance it could all get buried for another generation.