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Attacks by Taliban increase, approach Afghanistan capital

Seen capitalizing on public concern, weak government

KABUL, Afghanistan - Preying on a weak government and rising public concerns about security, the Taliban are enjoying a military resurgence in Afghanistan and are now staging attacks just outside the capital, according to Western diplomats, private security analysts, and aid workers.

Of particular concern, private security and intelligence analysts said, is the new reach of the Taliban to the provinces ringing Kabul, headquarters for thousands of international security troops. Those troops are seeking to shore up the government of President Hamid Karzai, help stabilize the country, find Osama bin Laden, and rebuild a nation deeply scarred by almost three decades of warfare. So far, they have had only mixed success.

"The Taliban ability to sustain fighting cells north and south of Kabul is an ominous development and a significant lapse in security," said a recent analysis by NightWatch, an intelligence review written by John McCreary, a former top analyst at the US Defense Intelligence Agency.

While the number of attacks around the capital has been small compared with the number of attacks in other areas of the country, McCreary wrote, the data showed that the Taliban this summer "held the psychological initiative. They still lack the ability to threaten the government, but moved closer to achieving it than they have in six years."

Analyses by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a project funded by the European Commission to advise private aid groups about security conditions across the country, found "a significant monthly escalation in conflict" in the first half of the year. Attacks by armed opposition groups increased from 139 in January to 405 in July, according to the project's director, Nic Lee.

"Every month there's a 20 to 25 percent increase in offensive activity," he said, adding that attacks in June and July were 80 percent to 90 percent higher than in the same period last year, showing a general escalation in the conflict, rather than seasonal fluctuations.

"Attacks have spread across the entire southeast border area, with a rapid escalation in the east, and in the last four months in the center" around Kabul as well, Lee said. "These guys have the strategic intent to take back the country."

NATO and US officials have not released their own statistics about attack trends, but they dispute the notion that the Taliban are significantly expanding operations from their traditional base in the south or that Afghanistan is sliding backward.

US Army General Dan K. McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said much of the activity attributed to the Taliban and other militant groups probably was not part of the antigovernment insurgency, but probably was related to criminal activity, narcotics trafficking, and tribal disputes. And in some cases, he said, levels of conflict are up because more NATO, US, and Afghan forces are pushing into areas of the country where they had never operated. There are an estimated 50,000 international troops Afghanistan, about half of them American.

"Logic tells you the number of incidents you report are going to be increased," he said.

The Taliban's use of guerrilla warfare tactics - particularly suicide attacks and roadside bombings - is on the rise, largely because the insurgents cannot challenge foreign security forces through conventional means, McNeill said. About 60 percent of Afghanistan - a country slightly smaller than Texas and with 32 million people - experiences on average less than one significant security event a week, he said, although "the south and the east are clearly exceptions."

The rise in attacks reflects "acts of desperation," said Humayun Hamidzada, the spokesman for Karzai. "If you go and blow up 20 civilians, what does it show? Does it show strength? It shows their weakness. It's no resurgence. It's just showing who they really are."

The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and promulgated a harsh and often unorthodox brand of Islamic law. The group intimidated and brutalized citizens, particularly women, destroyed Afghan culture, isolated the country internationally, and allowed it to become a base for bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which planned out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in part, from camps in Afghanistan.

Following the attacks, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban, and began an intense manhunt for bin Laden, who remains at large.

In the aftermath of the invasion, senior American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials described the Taliban as a spent force. Today, that assessment is widely doubted.

"The question is, were they ever defeated, and I don't think they ever were," McNeill said.

Many analysts say they believe the Taliban continue to draw support from elements in Pakistan, an assertion hotly disputed by the government in Islamabad. The consensus among independent intelligence analysts is that the Taliban leadership is headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan.

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