Across the street from the Evening in Paris wedding hall, a monument to opulence surrounded by neon-lighted fountains and a five-story replica of the Eiffel Tower, is a little colony of tents where 65 families, mostly returnees from Pakistan, huddle against the winter cold and wish they had never come home.
Similar startling contrasts abound across the Afghan capital. Children with pinched faces beg near the mansions of a tiny elite enriched by foreign aid and official corruption. Hundreds of tattered men gather at dawn outside a glittering new office building to compete for 50-cent jobs hauling construction debris.
"I am a farmer with 11 children. Our crops dried up, so I came to the city to find work, but all day I stand here in the cold and no one hires me," said Abdul Ghani, 47. "All the jobs and money go to those who have relatives in power, and corruption is everywhere. How else could they build these big houses? Nobody cares about the poor," he added bitterly. "They just make fun of us."
Seven years after the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a civilian-led, internationally backed government, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with rates of unemployment, illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition on a par with the most impoverished nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Most homes lack light, heat and running water; most babies are born at home and without medical help.
Now, according to U.N. figures, the populace is getting even poorer. A combination of drought, soaring food prices, scarce jobs and meager wages has meant that about 5 million Afghans -- far more than in any recent year -- are slated to receive emergency food aid. Many families spend up to 80 percent of their income on food.
Yet against this grim backdrop, pockets of wealth have mysteriously sprung up in Kabul and other cities. Officials who earn modest salaries on paper have built fantasy mansions, and former militia commanders with no visible means of support roar around the muddy streets in convoys of sport-utility vehicles, spattering the burqa-covered widows who squat at intersections with their hands held out.
It is difficult to prove, but universally believed here, that much of this new wealth is ill-gotten. There are endless tales of official corruption, illegal drug trafficking, cargo smuggling and personal pocketing of international aid funds that have created boom industries in construction, luxury imports, security and high-tech communications.
"The entire economy has become criminalized," said Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who quit his post as Afghan finance minister several years ago and is expected to challenge President Hamid Karzai in elections this year. "There is a crisis of governance. Corruption is way up, and poverty is massive. People are disheartened and confused."
Much of the corruption takes the form of penny-ante bureaucratic palm-greasing, with clerks demanding small bribes to stamp forms or police officers at checkpoints requiring truck drivers to pay to enter cities. But some is more audacious, such as municipal authorities selling government land for luxury housing projects or security officials colluding with the drug traffickers they are supposed to be catching.
Afghanistan has always been poor. Its people are among the hardiest on the planet, and its warriors have been famed for fighting foreign armies in sandals and shawls. But it is the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots -- between the VIPs in speeding SUVs and the garbage scavengers riding donkey carts -- that has increasingly embittered the public, turning it against the Karzai government and its foreign backers.
In dozens of interviews this month, Kabul residents complained that they were struggling to feed their families and heat their rooms on scanty or occasional wages, while access to sources of prosperity such as ministerial sinecures and jobs with international agencies was limited to the lucky few with relatives in high places or the means to pay bribes.
"People are really feeling the gap between rich and poor now," said Ebadullah Ebadi, a spokesman for the World Food Program here. "Once there were three classes in Afghanistan: the rich, the middle and the poor. Now those in the middle are joining the poor, and prices are rising so high that people can't feed their families on salaries that once allowed them to educate their children and even save a little money."
Karzai has publicly acknowledged that corruption plagues all levels of his government, yet critics say he is either unable or unwilling to stop it. The new Afghan constitution has numerous provisions requiring officials to disclose their assets and perform their duties with financial transparency and accountability, but they are rarely heeded, according to a recent study by the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan.
The public mood of frustration, desperation and disgust has played into the hands of Taliban insurgents, who present themselves as an alternative source of justice and carry out swift physical punishments of thieves or other miscreants in rural areas under their control. It was a similar appeal to law and order in the mid-1990s, when Afghanistan was in the throes of civil war, that allowed the Taliban militia to quickly achieve power with little bloodshed.
Most Afghans do not favor a return of the Taliban, especially in cities where their extreme version of Islam clashed with the lifestyles of the country's educated classes. But more and more, people recall the five years of Taliban rule as a time of brutal but honest government, when officials lived modestly and citizens were safe from criminals.
"Nobody loved the Taliban, but what we see now is outrageous. The leaders are not rebuilding Afghanistan, they are only lining their pockets," said Abdul Nabi, 40, a high school teacher. "I haven't been paid in three months. The other day, a colleague came to me weeping and asked to borrow money to buy bread. Who can we blame for this?" he demanded. "Where can we turn to change things?"
In the tent colony next to the Evening in Paris, Zakia, a mother of seven, recounted how her family had been forced to leave its refugee camp in Pakistan and return to Kabul last year. They had expected to obtain land and jobs but found neither, she said. Last week, a young woman in one tent died while giving birth. "If we had known what we would face here, we would never have come back," she said.
Across the street, sitting in his ornate office, the owner of the French-themed wedding hall expressed surprisingly similar sentiments. He complained that the government had done nothing to encourage private development, that he had to buy water and power privately and that the unpaved street outside his elegant premises was a sea of mud.
"Do I regret making this investment? I regret it 100 percent," said the owner, who gave his name as Hajji Obaidullah. "When I built this hall five years ago, there was a lot of hope and excitement, but now it has all turned to disappointment. We have no electricity, no drinking water, no security. If the government doesn't want to help people like me, how is the man with the little shop or the donkey cart going to survive?"