Insurgents linked to the former Taliban regime have set off a wave of violence in Afghanistan, launching a string of almost daily bombings and assassinations that have killed dozens of U.S. and Afghan military personnel and civilians in recent weeks while spreading fear throughout the international aid worker community.
Analysts say the rash of attacks appears calculated to undermine stability in the lead-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for September and has undercut predictions by U.S. and Afghan officials during the winter that the radical Islamic militia was on the verge of collapse.
"The Taliban may be limited in their movements and unable to take territory and hold it," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist based in Pakistan who has had frequent contact with the Taliban, "but they are very much here and they will be for a long time. . . . They are telling us they have no shortage of volunteers to fight."
In the past week, an election worker was shot in the face; two de-mining specialists were killed in a roadside ambush; a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile was fired at a U.S. aircraft; four U.S. soldiers were killed -- including two who came under mortar fire Wednesday as they unloaded a helicopter in the eastern province of Paktika; and a suicide bomber killed 20 people in a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar during a funeral for an assassinated pro-government cleric. The Taliban denied involvement in the mosque bombing but asserted responsibility for the cleric's murder.
Development projects near the Taliban's southern strongholds have been suspended, and a virtual lockdown is in effect for many of the roughly 3,000 international residents of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
The city was already on edge after a month of heightened unrest, including the kidnapping of an Italian aid worker, a rocket assault on NATO's headquarters compound, an apparent suicide bombing at an Internet cafe that killed two people, and several days of violent anti-American protests across the country that were sparked by a news report -- since retracted -- that guards at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran. The protests led to 16 deaths, and the Pentagon has since detailed five confirmed cases of desecration.
At least some of the attacks are the work of non-Taliban groups, including criminal gangs, drug traffickers, citizens who blame foreign aid workers for their country's slow economic progress, and factional leaders vying for control of local districts, some analysts and government officials said.
But Taliban fighters are widely believed to be behind most of the assaults in the south and east.
The movement's resilience 31/2 years after its ouster from power by a U.S. bombing campaign has also been evident during an ongoing American and Afghan military campaign to flush insurgents from their southern and eastern mountain redoubts.
Since March, that effort has boasted many successes, according to American officials. About 270 Taliban fighters have been killed; they are estimated to number anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000.
But during several pitched battles in early May, the Taliban militia also showed itself to be a well-equipped, vital foe, with units of 20 or more firing rocket-propelled grenades and light machine guns for hours despite taking heavy casualties.
"These are guys that stand and fight," observed 1st Lt. Ken Wainwright, who hunts the Taliban in the golden, craggy mountains of the southern province of Zabol as part of the Second Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry.
Those skirmishes in May seemed to reveal an opponent far more robust than recently portrayed by Lt. Gen. David Barno, the former senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan. During a news conference in April, Barno warned that a "small, hardcore remnant of the Taliban" might attempt a last, desperate, high-profile terrorist attack. But he said he envisioned "most of [the organization] collapsing and rejoining the Afghan political and economic process" within a year.
More recently, Taliban fighters appear to have shifted tactics to avoid further casualties on their side by ambushing soldiers with improvised explosive devices on roadsides rather than engaging them in battle, U.S. and Afghan military officials said.
Since March, three U.S. soldiers have been killed this way, in addition to four others killed in combat. Afghan troops and police have suffered even greater casualties.
"We are seeing new, more effective remote-controlled bombs now," observed Gen. Afzul Aman, chief of staff for an Afghan army corps that operates in 12 eastern and central provinces.
The rebels seem to have switched their focus from U.S. and Afghan forces to "soft" civilian targets.
Lt. Col. Tom Donovan, who oversees operations in three eastern provinces as commander of the Second Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment, said the change in strategy was immediately evident.
"In our district we've had schools bombed, medical clinics bombed and government buildings burned down," he said.
Some upswing in violence was expected this spring after one of the bitterest winters on record kept much of the country snowbound for months. But Afghan and U.S. officials said the frequency and intensity of the recent attacks reflected a sustained effort by the Taliban to undermine the parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
Last October, the militia suffered a major psychological and military setback when it failed to follow through on threats to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential elections, the analysts and officials said.
Since then, the movement has been further humiliated by the defection of several dozen former members, who pledged allegiance to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government in exchange for its promise not to arrest them. Few, if any, of these former Taliban members appear to have been active fighters. But the group includes prominent former Taliban officials such as the onetime foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who is one of five ex-Taliban running for parliament.
Meanwhile, the Afghan army has grown from a force of several thousand to more than 20,000, with plans to increase its numbers to 70,000. The Afghan police force is about 50,000-strong.
"The enemy realizes this is their last chance to have a significant impact on shaping the future of Afghanistan," Donovan said.
At a news conference Tuesday, Jawed Ludin, a spokesman for Karzai, said the government had evidence that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters kicked off that effort in earnest on June 1, with the unsuccessful firing of the surface-to-air missile at a U.S. aircraft, and the suicide bombing during the funeral at the Kandahar mosque, although the Taliban has denied carrying out that attack.
"It's only logical to assume that [they] would have chosen this time to obviously set a plot in motion," he said. "The aim was to create maximum effect . . . maximum shock among the people."
Officials of NATO, which patrols Kabul and the more quiet northern and western sections of the country, are drafting plans to augment the alliance's 8,000 troops with additional forces in advance of the elections.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said the United States had a battalion standing by in case it needed to supplement the roughly 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
It remains unclear whether the level of violence this spring will ultimately prove greater or lower than the level last spring.
Capt. Jonathan Hopkins, adjutant to the battalion in Zabol, said his unit's analysis indicated that, apart from areas where troops had drawn fire by probing for Taliban hideouts, there were less attacks in the province this year.
But Hopkins noted the overall perception of insecurity could prove as harmful as a decline in security.
"If [nongovernmental aid organizations] think it's worse here, then they will react accordingly, no matter what the truth on the ground is," Hopkins said.