The appointment of a religious affairs official of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime to the country’s new parliament is prompting concern among international human rights advocates. “There’s a growing feeling of an opportunity lost,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia research director with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights organization, after his return in December from a three-week visit to Afghanistan. Mr. Zarifi’s visit coincided with the convening on Dec. 19 of Afghanistan’s first democratically elected parliament following the ousting of the Taliban regime in late 2001 in a United States-led military campaign. But he said the appointment of Arsala Rahmani, a high-ranking official of the Taliban religious affairs ministry, to the Parliament’s upper house was contributing to a feeling of “real pessimism” among human rights groups inside and outside the country. “A lot of Afghans see his presence now and ask, ‘Why is he back?'” Mr. Zarifi noted about Mr. Rahmani. President Hamid Karzai, who has backing from the U.S. and western allies, appointed the former Taliban official. The religious affairs ministry was notorious for many of the rules imposed on Afghans at the time when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan according to what they said was strict adherence to Islamic law. The Taliban reaped international condemnation for their human rights record, particularly for their treatment of women but, Mr. Zarifi noted, there was now a steady increase in popularity of the Taliban among ordinary Afghans. Observers say such popularity is fuelled by a growing perception that the Afghan government is corrupt and ineffective, and that day-to-day security within Afghanistan is rapidly declining. “There are several districts, particularly in southern Afghanistan, where the government doesn’t even really exist,” Mr. Zarifi said. The Taliban and other government opponents, Mr. Zarifi said, are reportedly encouraged by signals that the United States and its allies are undergoing “a wavering commitment on the ground.” In some areas, “the U.S. projects control during the day, but the Taliban projects control at night,” Mr. Zarifi said.