An onslaught of grisly and sophisticated attacks since parliamentary elections in September has left Afghan and international officials concerned that Taliban guerrillas are obtaining support from abroad to carry out strikes that increasingly mimic insurgent tactics in Iraq.
The recent attacks -- including at least nine suicide bombings -- have shown unusual levels of coordination, technological knowledge and blood lust, according to officials. Although military forces and facilities have been the most common targets, religious leaders, judges, police officers and foreign reconstruction workers have also fallen prey to the violence.
The success of the September vote, which was relatively peaceful despite Taliban threats of sabotage, initially raised hopes that the insurgency was losing strength. But after two of the bloodiest months since U.S. forces entered Kabul in 2001, officials now say the Taliban might have been using that time to marshal foreign support and plot new ways to undermine the Western-backed government.
The attacks have been particularly noteworthy for their use of suicide bombers. Some have struck in waves, with one explosive-laden car following the next in an effort to maximize casualties. That sort of attack has been a hallmark of al Qaeda and a regular occurrence in Iraq. But in Afghanistan, suicide attacks of any kind have been relatively rare, despite a quarter-century of warfare.
Attackers have also shown a growing appetite for strikes in cities, particularly Kabul, setting residents' nerves on edge and leading them to take new security precautions at work, home and social events.
At a wedding Saturday, armed Afghan police officers meticulously searched guests before they were allowed to enter -- a practice unknown here until recent months. "Maybe somebody will bring a bomb and explode it at the wedding," said Nasrullah, a guest in his fifties who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "It used to be that we could trust people. But right now, we cannot trust."
Col. Jim Yonts, spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, said the Taliban is resorting to suicide attacks and remote-controlled bombings in urban areas "out of desperation" as it continues to lose ground -- and men -- to international forces in the mountains and other rural areas. "They only lose one person in a suicide attack, not 10 or 15," as they would in battle, he said.
But Yonts acknowledged "grave concern" among U.S. officials over the idea that the Taliban might be taking a page from Iraqi insurgents' playbook by attacking with explosives in cities.
Afghan officials said the recent attacks demonstrate that the Taliban fighters are continuing to receive considerable outside assistance, such as advanced explosives and computerized timing devices that are being used to build more devastating bombs.
"There has been . . . more money and more weapons flowing into their hands in recent months," Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "We see similarities between the type of attacks here and in Iraq."
In the past two weeks, Afghanistan has experienced near-daily attacks. Among the incidents:
* Eight civilians and a German soldier were killed when two cars -- one coming minutes after the other -- plowed into crowds in Kabul. Soldiers thwarted a suspected third attack when they shot and killed the driver of a car speeding toward the scene.
* An Indian truck driver was taken hostage while working on a road reconstruction project in Nimruz province in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban later asserted it had killed him when a deadline passed for the worker's company to agree to abandon its operations in Afghanistan. Villagers found his nearly decapitated body the following day.
* Two U.S. soldiers were killed by separate roadside bombs, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year close to 90 -- double the total in 2004. A Portuguese soldier and a Swedish soldier were also killed in bombings.
* Insurgents burned down a police headquarters in eastern Afghanistan and took five Afghan officers hostage. Dozens more Afghans across the country were killed by bombs planted in homes, or in suicide attacks and ambushes.
The level of violence in Afghanistan is still nowhere near that in Iraq. The insurgency here is generally considered to have far less public support and to be less capable of pulling off attacks that cause mass casualties. Reconstruction projects are ongoing in most parts of the country, and Westerners can move freely in many areas with little fear of violence.
"Compared to Iraq, where the suicide bomber is such a cheap commodity they could throw them at almost any target, that's not where we are here," said U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann, noting that the bombers have been a mix of Afghans and foreigners.
Neumann said he did not believe the stepped-up attacks were a sign of widening Taliban support, but rather represented "a change in tactics and in targets, which makes the violence more evident."
But the increased violence has added another obstacle to the country's reconstruction effort, still struggling nearly four years after the overthrow of Taliban rule and the conference of international officials and Afghan leaders in Bonn that charted Afghanistan's democratization process.
"We've seen a deterioration in the security situation. And that's something that all of us who work here are worried about," said Adrian Edwards, the Kabul-based U.N. spokesman. "I don't think any of us [at Bonn] would have expected that this kind of security environment is something we would be faced with four years down the road," he said.
Gen. Zaher Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said he believes one reason the Taliban has become especially active is that the road map to democracy outlined in Bonn is nearly complete, with the new parliament set to convene in December. "That makes the enemies of Afghanistan upset," he said.
The enemies of Afghanistan, according to government officials, include not just the Taliban, but also militant Islamic groups worldwide -- especially al Qaeda -- that have had a reciprocal relationship with the Taliban for the past decade. Taliban authorities used foreign financial and military support in the 1990s to defeat their domestic opponents; in turn, international terrorists, Osama bin Laden among them, received sanctuary here.
The recent spate of urban violence has alarmed Afghans, even after years of exposure to civil strife and warfare.
"This is the worst security that we've had," said Abdul Karim, 26, who drives a construction crane and used to work at a job site on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. He has refused to return to the site since nine people were killed in an attack there two weeks ago. "I'm too worried about suicide bombers," he said.
Nafisa Faqirzada, a 43-year-old high school teacher, said she believes the suicide attacks are the work of foreigners who follow the teachings of bin Laden, because "Afghans know that a suicide attack is forbidden in Islam."
Faqirzada said she wants U.S. soldiers to stay in Afghanistan and help keep the peace, but she also blames them -- both for failing to catch bin Laden and for exposing her to risk through their presence. "The suicide bombers won't do anything to me because I'm a common woman," she said. "But if I see the American military, I worry because maybe someone will try to blow them up, and I will get hurt."
But other Kabul residents said they had other, more immediate concerns. Abdul Rauf, 41, said he had heard about the recent suicide bombings, but was far more worried about how he would buy firewood and food for his six children this winter on the $120 a month he makes repairing shoes.
"What will I do with security if I don't have food to eat, and don't have work to do?" Rauf said.