Najeeb Peykon shaves every morning. "I shave as a mark of resistance to the return of the Taliban," he said, beaming from a showbiz burgundy suit with a red tie. "And when we see each other on the street, shaved men feel as much solidarity as when we catch sight of the ink stains on our fingers."

In the war over symbols, clean-shaven voters signify support for a modern Afghan republic shorn of its ethnic fault lines and constructed along pro-Western lines. It is a far cry from the Taliban-era Afghanistan, where elections were banned and shaved men received public lashings.

But now, as the Taliban stage a comeback, unease is growing among men with no facial hair and the telltale stains that betray their participation in Afghanistan's second parliamentary elections. Letters issued at night across the country ahead of September's parliamentary elections condemned the electoral process as a Western construct, pledging to track down voters and cut off their fingers.

For Peykon, a journalist and the director of the independent radio station Nehad, democracy in Afghanistan is fragile, like "a single wavering candle in a very dark house".

"Most people don't know anything about democracy and have no acquaintance with it," he said. "If you're from the same ethnic group, then they'll vote for you. Other people follow the democratic bandwagon as if it's a caravan. Only a minority understand its true meaning."

The four narrow dark rooms that make up Peykon's radio station represent an alternative vision of Afghanistan to the strict orthodoxy espoused by the Taliban. Free speech under the cover of anonymity is available to callers who often live in areas too dangerous for government forces to venture into. In the newsroom, female journalists bustle about dressed in the casual, colourful headscarves popularised in neighbouring Iran by secular Iranian women. Instead of suffering the restrictions experienced by those shuffling in the streets outside encased in white and blue burqas, they are free to call up sources, mingle with male colleagues and speak their mind.

But the walls seem to be closing in on this liberal view of a future Afghanistan. The once-peaceful north has increasingly destabilised as Taliban-affiliated militias proliferate in provinces like Kunduz, Faryab, Jawzjan and Samangan.

As the house of cards presided over by President Hamid Karzai teeters, Mazar-e Sharif's Governor, Noor Atta, a former mujahideen commander, is planning for the future by arming local militias in several villages of his native Balkh Province. After openly backing the anti-Karzai presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in last year's fraudulent elections, Atta's current actions suggest he feels the situation has deteriorated enough to warrant entirely bypassing the central government.

This deterioration is such it has prompted the embattled Karzai government to initiate direct talks with the Taliban in Kabul. Several meetings have taken place in the high-security five-star Serena Hotel with unknown high-level intermediaries for the Taliban who, it is whispered, are former colonels in the Pakistani secret services.

"The intermediaries are not the real thing but they have the ability to convey the message," said Davood Moradian, the chief of strategic studies at the Afghan Foreign Ministry. "The Taliban need to be convinced that they will not prevail and they will not win."

The ISI was instrumental in setting up the Taliban in the 1990s as a Pakistani proxy in a neighbour that has always acted as a buffer against other rivals. The Afghan government has long complained that the Pakistanis have not done enough to eject the Taliban from safe havens in the tribal territories along the Afghan border. But even if they were to play a constructive role, it is far from certain that the Taliban is a purely Pakistani-led creation.

"The Taliban are obsessed with the revival of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan," said Syed Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist and the author of Al-Qaeda: Ideology, Strategy and Tactics. "Accepting its revival negates the UN sanctions in the late '90s and the dislodging of the Taliban in 2001, amounting to a complete western defeat in Afghanistan."

The current discussions have their antecedents in several breaking-of-fast iftars brokered by the Saudi government in September. They are reportedly some of the highest-level contacts between the Taliban and the Afghan government, though this may only be an expression of the urgency felt in Kabul ahead of a policy review to be conducted by the Obama administration that may scale back the American commitment to Afghanistan.

"Contrary to his campaign slogan, Mr Obama has almost certainly concluded that Afghanistan is not 'the right war'," said Mark Medish, vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former director of Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. "The unwisdom of the deadlines does not change the fact that the entire war and 'nation-building' efforts have been ill-conceived."

President Karzai's credibility with ordinary Afghans and his western backers is also at stake. The memory of his fraud-riddled election is still fresh and a US inquiry into his elder brother's finances is pending.

In fact, a strategy to break up the country proposed by former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwell, has been gaining traction in policymaking circles. According to the proposal, NATO would accept that defeating the insurgency was a lost cause and retreat behind a steel wall in a Tajik-majority remainder state. South of the new border, a new Pashtunistan would emerge, centred around Kandahar.

"Blackwell's proposal echoes the 'realism' of those who have been calling for a tripartite division of Iraq," said Medish. "Even if the plan is not adopted as a declaratory policy, it has the virtue of reflecting facts on the ground."

The quick fix solution could have the consequences of fragmenting neighbouring Pakistan, a country where 40 million Pashtuns reside. Already a failed state with nuclear weapons, the consequences of a dismantled Pakistan could destabilise the region. But Blackwell sees a potential advantage in the chaos, arguing that "the spectre of de facto partition in Afghanistan might even produce the change of heart in the Pakistani military's attitude to the Afghan Taliban that successive US administrations have failed to achieve".

The prospect of a secessionist Afghanistan is music to the ears of Persian nationalists like Nasir Ahmad Farahmand, a philosophy professor at Talimo Tarbiat University, in western Kabul.

"It will mean the revival of Khorassan," he said, referring to a historical, Persian-majority region stretching from Tajikistan to the Iranian city of Mashad. "And its capital will be Mazar-e Sharif."

The obvious downside of this for Washington would be the further strengthening of regional rival Iran. Tehran has maintained cordial relations with Pakistan while extending its sphere of influence within western Afghanistan. On Afghan streets, the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, already enjoys wide popularity among the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities.

Farahmand is involved alongside the former intelligence minister Amrullah Saleh in building a political movement opposed to President Karzai's planned negotiations with 
the Taliban.

"We cannot hand our country back to these people," Farahmand said. "The only good Talib is a dead Talib."