KABUL — First, the insurgent fighters attacked a security checkpoint, shooting half a dozen local militiamen. Then, officials said, they entered Mirza Oleng, a village in the rugged hills of northwestern Sar-e Pol province, and started grabbing civilians — men, women and children. When they were done, more than 40 people were dead.
“Some were beheaded, some had their bodies pierced, and some were thrown off the mountain,” said Zabiullah Amani, a spokesman for the Sar-e Pol governor. “They were savagely slaughtered. We don’t know why they were killing civilians. We don’t know what their motives were.”
There were conflicting claims about who carried out the Saturday attack. The Taliban, which controls much of the area, claimed that its fighters killed only members of the local militia. Some government officials said Islamic State fighters were also involved, and the gruesome tactics bore the hallmarks of the international Sunni extremist militia, which has fought the Taliban and also welcomed renegades from its ranks.
But there seemed to be method to the mayhem.
The Taliban, making a summer show of force as the Trump administration weighs its options in the nearly 16-year war, has been stymied in earlier efforts to take over major cities. The insurgents are now refocusing their strategy to showcase their wide geographical reach. In the past month alone, there has been a surge of scattered attacks in remote regions, especially the northwestern provinces of Ghowr, Faryab and now Sar-e Pol, as well as in the south and east.
The insurgents are also using crueler tactics to intimidate the populace and local security forces — even as they provide services, security, quick-justice courts and even recreation in communities they control. They appear to be capitalizing on the high rate of civilian casualties that has fueled much of the growing public discontent with the divided and struggling government headed by President Ashraf Ghani.
Civilian war-related deaths have climbed steadily since 2012, rising from 2,769 that year to 3,498 last year, and there were 1,662 between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, according to the United Nations mission here. The number of civilians wounded has grown from 4,821 in 2012 to 7,920 in 2016. The combined casualty figures have set a record every year.
“As the U.S. government ponders a new strategy, the Taliban have stepped up their attacks in order to cause worry in Washington and to show that they are everywhere in Afghanistan,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired army general here. He said insurgent attacks in the north, far from the Taliban’s southern strongholds, “have more propaganda and psychological impact on the population and the security forces.”
Amarkhel and others said the insurgents are also hoping to exploit the deepening rifts and weaknesses within the Ghani government, which has recently seen high-level defections, public protests, constant shuffles among cabinet ministers and a chorus of demands for change from a wide range of political groups.
All of these developments have escalated since a May 31 truck bombing in Kabul, still unclaimed by any group, that killed 150 people and injured 400, sparking protests that led to more deaths. In rural areas, local officials have repeatedly complained that security forces are inadequate to protect them or that officials fail to send help in time when attacks take place.
A third factor in the insurgents' rural upsurge may be support from the government of Iran, which has recently been accused by Afghan officials of supplying the Taliban with weapons and money. Iran, a Shiite theocracy, was once militarily opposed to the Sunni extremist Taliban, but it is now believed to be backing the group as a lesser evil and an antidote to the Islamic State, a more brutal and expansionist militia.
A number of recent insurgent attacks have taken place in northwestern Afghanistan, far from the Taliban's southern base and much closer to the Iran border. On Aug. 1, gunmen in suicide vests attacked a Shiite mosque in Herat, the ancient gateway city to Iran, during an evening prayer service, killing at least 29 worshipers and provoking emotional protests.
In nearby Faryab province, where Taliban forces nearly overran the capital in October, insurgents captured the Kohistan district two weeks ago, while in next-door Ghowr province, they infiltrated and seized the Taywara district, burning down government buildings and a health clinic before the area was retaken after four days by government forces.
"The enemy was planning to open a corridor from Helmand to the mountains of Faryab and Sar-e Pol provinces, but you have foiled their plan," Abdullah Abdullah, the government's chief executive, told Afghan troops in a visit to Ghowr afterward. He said the group's goal was to "destabilize the north," where insurgents now control many areas and have twice seized the capital of Kunduz province but were driven back by Afghan fighters and U.S. airstrikes.
But representatives from Taywara complained bitterly that the government had responded too slowly to the Taliban attack, allowing the district to collapse with high casualties. The provincial governor, Ghulam Nasir Khaze, said that shortages and delays in government security operations let “the killers of civilians” get away and “walk freely” in the nearby capital.
The Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Dawlat Waziri, said he believes the Taliban is targeting such regions, home to many Shiites from the ethnic Hazara minority, “to turn the war into a sectarian one.” He said the Taliban is staging some attacks “in the name of Daesh,” as the Islamic State is known here, to exploit fears of the Middle East-based militia and win support from Russia and Iran.
Mirza Oleng, the besieged village in Sar-e Pol, is also a Shiite community, and a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said both Taliban and Islamic State fighters were part of that attack. He said they detained people at a mosque and prayer site, “then took them away and killed them brutally.” Officials said they were preparing to launch a major ground and air offensive in the area.
The U.S. Embassy strongly condemned the slayings, saying that “for insurgent fighters to mercilessly execute innocent villagers and those who serve to protect them proves once again that these terrorist groups are a force of evil in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban is keeping up attacks in Sunni and ethnic Pashtun regions, too. In southeastern Paktia province last week, its fighters captured Janikhel, a strategic supply route district, for the second time in a year. The provincial police chief, Toryalai Abdiyani, said it could fall again without a stronger military presence. “The Taliban flag is visible 150 meters away,” he said.