To add to the gloom, the Afghanistan Study Group warns that any progress made "is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people". An assessment that ought to surprise no-one.
All these developments suggest that the Taliban, if not exactly back in power, are growing in confidence and influence. A stranger but still telling sign of growing religious repression is this report from the Australian broadcaster ABC about the plight of the country's fortune-tellers. Such people, known as fallben, traditionally hang around mosque precincts reading palms, casting lots and using sundry other methods to divine the workings of fate for their customers.
Ruthlessly suppressed by the Taliban, who regarded their activity as decidedly un-Islamic, the fortune-tellers have made a comeback in recent years. Now, however, their livelihood is once again under threat. In one recent crackdown, dozens were recently ejected from outside the Hazrat Ali shrine in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif. "Islam does not permit the practice of fleecing simple people," said the shrine's head, Qari Mohammad Qasim.
As another imam put it,
Fortune telling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly in the Koran that this is against Islamic values. Fortune tellers are misusing the sacred religion for their personal advantage.
It certainly sounds un-Islamic. But things are rarely so simple. Over the centuries, like all religions, Islam made its accommodation with earlier ideas and beliefs, and with the probably innate and impossible to remove human need to take solace in the irrational. The methods employed by Afghan fellben demonstrate this fascinating blend of religion and magic. First, the diviner will look at the customer's hand or roll some dice. But the results are interpreted according to a mathematical formula that links them with verses of the Koran. These will provide the answer to the problem. Or the customer may be told to repeat the verse several times a day, or it will be rolled into a small ball and worn next to the skin.
In his recent documentary series Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins gleefully laid into astrologers, psychics, homeopathists, crystal healers and similar peddlars of superstitious hogwash. It's hard to imagine a convinced rationalist making common cause with the Taliban, but the mullahs would seem to be with Dawkins on this one. Something of a quandary, this. The existence of fortune tellers and similar exploiters on the vulnerable is surely something to be deeply regretted. But is it not also a sign of liberty and tolerance?