KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Before executing the International Red Cross worker, the Taliban gunmen made a satellite telephone call to their superior for instructions: Kill him?
Kill him, the order came back, and Ricardo Munguia, whose body was found with 20 bullet wounds last month, became the first foreign aid worker to die in Afghanistan since the Taliban's ouster from power 18 months ago.
The manner of his death suggests the Taliban is not only determined to remain a force in this country, but is reorganizing and reviving its command structure.
There is little to stop them. The soldiers and police who were supposed to be the bedrock of a stable postwar Afghanistan have gone unpaid for months and are drifting away.
At a time when the United States is promising a reconstructed democratic postwar Iraq, many Afghans are remembering hearing similar promises not long ago.
Instead, what they see is thieving warlords, murder on the roads, and a resurgence of Taliban vigilantism.
"It's like I am seeing the same movie twice and no one is trying to fix the problem," said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghanistan's president and his representative in southern Kandahar. "What was promised to Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing. Everyone is back in business."
Karzai said reconstruction has been painfully slow — a canal repaired, a piece of city road paved, a small school rebuilt.
"There have been no significant changes for people," he said. "People are tired of seeing small, small projects. I don't know what to say to people anymore."
When the Taliban ruled they forcibly conscripted young men.
"Today I can say 'we don't take your sons away by force to fight at the front line,'" Karzai remarked. "But that's about all I can say."
From safe havens in neighboring Pakistan, aided by militant Muslim groups there, the Taliban launched their revival to coincide with the war in Iraq and capitalize on Muslim anger over the U.S. invasion, say Afghan officials.
Karzai said the Taliban are allied with rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, supported by Pakistan and financed by militant Arabs.
The attacks have targeted foreigners and the threats have been directed toward Afghans working for international organizations.
Abdul Salam is a military commander for the government. Last month he was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar and became a witness to the killing of Munguia, a 39-year-old water engineer from El Salvador.
After stopping Munguia and his three-vehicle convoy, gunmen made a phone call to Mullah Dadullah, a powerful former Taliban commander who happens to have an artificial leg provided by the Red Cross.
Mimicking a telephone receiver by cupping a hand on his ear, Salam recalled the gunmen's side of the conversation.
"I heard him say Mullah Dadullah," he said. "I heard him ask for instructions."
When the conversation ended the Taliban moved quickly, Salam said. They shoved Munguia behind one of the vehicles, siphoned gasoline from the tanks and used it to set the vehicles on fire.
Munguia was standing nearby. One Taliban raised his Kalashnikov rifle and fired at Manguia.
Then they told the others: "You are working with kafirs [unbelievers]. You are slaves of Karzai and Karzai is a slave to America."
"This time we will let you go because you are Afghan," Salam remembered them saying, "but if we find you again and you are still working for the government we will kill you."
In the latest killing in southern Afghanistan, gunmen on Thursday shot to death Haji Gilani, a close Karzai ally, in southern Uruzgan province. Gilani was one of the first people to shelter Karzai when he secretly entered Afghanistan to foment a rebellion against the Taliban in late 2001.
International workers in Kandahar don't feel safe anymore and some have been moved from the Kandahar region to safer areas, said John Oerum, southwest security officer for the United Nations. But Oerum is trying to find a way to stay in southern Afghanistan. To abandon it would be to let the rebel forces win, he says.
The Red Cross, with 150 foreign workers in Afghanistan, have suspended operations indefinitely.
Today most Afghans say their National Army seems a distant dream while the U.S.-led coalition continues to feed and finance warlords for their help in hunting for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
Karzai, the president's brother, says: "We have to pay more attention at the district level, build the administration. We know who these Taliban are, but we don't have the people to report them when they return."
Khan Mohammed, commander of Kandahar's 2nd Corps, says his soldiers haven't been paid in seven months, and his fighting force has dwindled. The Kandahar police chief, Mohammed Akram, said he wants 50 extra police in each district where the Taliban have a stronghold. But he says his police haven't been paid in months and hundreds have just gone home.
"There is no real administration all over Afghanistan, no army, no police," said Mohammed. "The people do not want the Taliban, but we have to unite and build, but we are not."