QALAT, Afghanistan -- The ancient fortress towering above Qalat, the capital of Afghanistan's southern province of Zabul, overlooks swaths of desert and scrubland that stretch to the rugged mountains straddling the border with Pakistan.
This barren, sparsely populated land has long been a backwater. But under the unwatchful eyes of the government and U.S.-led international forces, Zabul has become a major hub of Taliban support in Afghanistan, where the militants are waging a deadly 17-year insurgency.
The government's control barely goes beyond the soaring fortress in Qalat, which is said to date back to when Alexander the Great invaded the region more than 2,000 years ago and is now manned by the Afghan National Army. The Taliban contest or control most of Zabul, where government forces are under constant attack.
Poverty, No Jobs
Despite official claims that support for the Taliban is weak or forced under duress, support in rural Zabul, at least, is high.
"I don't support the Taliban, because they are a barrier to progress and development," says Mansur, a resident of Qalat, a dusty town of around 45,000 people. "But people in rural areas don't have a choice. There's poverty and no jobs, so people join the Taliban."
Faiz Mohammad Ahmadzai, a civil activist in Qalat, says the province has been forgotten by the government, which he claims has focused its military and developmental efforts in larger, more strategic neighboring provinces like Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Helmand.
"Compared to those provinces, we have had very little progress here," Ahmadzai says. "The government has paid little attention to Zabul, so people turning to the Taliban."
'A Lot Of Sympathy For The Taliban'
The testimony of Zabul's residents is supported by a newly released survey by the Asia Foundation that found that 59 percent of respondents in Zabul had "a lot of sympathy for the Taliban," more than twice as high as in any province in the country.
The survey of some 15,000 adults, the largest annual poll of its kind in Afghanistan, also showed that the percentage of respondents in Zabul who expressed pessimism about the country's direction is 66 percent, about 5 percentage points more than the national average.
Only 33 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with democracy, and only 33 percent expressed satisfaction with the provincial government, the lowest in the country.
Historical Significance For Taliban
Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst and a consultant for the International Crisis Group, warns that "polling in the middle of the world's biggest war is nearly impossible."
But Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, says there are several reasons why there is more sympathy for the Taliban in Zabul than other provinces.
Sabawoon says Zabul has historical significance for the Taliban. The province is located deep in the conservative Pushtun belt from which the Taliban first emerged to gain control of the country in the 1990s, and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar belonged to the Hotak tribe, one of the two major tribes in Zabul.
"There are many Taliban from Zabul who are in the leadership and the rank and file of the militant group," Sabawoon says, in contrast to the lack of Zabul natives serving as ministers in the Kabul government, or as governor or security chief of the province.
As a Taliban stronghold, Zabul has also witnessed intense fighting, Sabawoon says, and the province has been the scene of controversial U.S. and Afghan night raids and has suffered civilian casualties in NATO air strikes, creating resentment against the government and international forces.
Afghan government forces in the country's volatile south are concentrated in key urban centers and are aimed at protecting key supply routes and clamping down on the opium trade, a key source of income for the insurgency. There is only a limited government security presence in Zabul, where the estimated population of 300,000 is mostly settled in rural areas and is spread across hundreds of villages.
Zabul also shares a 60-kilometer border with Pakistan, which U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused of supporting and harboring the Taliban, a claim Islamabad denies. The Taliban's leadership is believed to be based in Pakistan's Balochistan Province, which borders Zabul.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Zabul was a main gateway for the anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters streaming into Afghanistan from Pakistan.
"Many people from Zabul lived in Pakistan as refugees or go to Pakistan's Balochistan Province as migrant laborers," Sabawoon says. "The propaganda spread by the Taliban settled in Balochistan is another factor of their sympathy for the Taliban."
Deep in Taliban country and forgotten by the government, Zabul residents find themselves in a bind.
"The Taliban is destroying our roads and bridges and killing civilians," says Bismillah, a resident of Qalat. "But the government has abandoned us, so people either join the Taliban or support them."