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Taliban Presence Seen Across Almost All Afghanistan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- The Taliban have a significant presence in almost every corner of Afghanistan, data from a policy think tank shows, as the country lurches into political uncertainty after a disputed presidential election.

A political standoff has deepened since the August 20 poll, with President Hamid Karzai defending the ballot as honest but a UN-backed election watchdog invalidating some votes and ordering a partial recount amid widespread accusations of fraud.

The uncertainty coincides with the most violent period since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, with record military and civilian deaths testing the resolve of U.S. and European leaders.

The election, initially hailed as a success after the Taliban failed to disrupt it, has since become a major headache for Washington and a test of U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the militants and stabilise Afghanistan.

However, a security map by policy research group the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) showed a deepening security crisis with substantial Taliban activity in at least 97 percent of the country.

The ICOS data, obtained by Reuters before its release on September 10, painted an even darker picture than an Afghan government map last month that showed almost half of Afghanistan at either a high risk of attack or under "enemy control."

Based on reports of an average of one or more insurgent attacks a week since January 2009, it showed heavy Taliban activity across 80 percent of Afghanistan. A substantial Taliban presence -- one or more attacks per month -- was seen in another 17 percent of the country.

'Dramatic Increase'

A similar map released by ICOS researchers in Afghanistan late last year noted a permanent Taliban presence in 72 percent of the country and a substantial presence in another 21 percent.

In the most significant difference to previous security assessments, the latest ICOS map shows a heavy increase in areas of the north previously regarded as relatively safe such as Balkh and Konduz provinces.

The Afghan government map, drawn up with the help of the United Nations and dated four months before the election, showed large areas of the north as either low- or medium-risk areas.

"Across the north of Afghanistan, there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of insurgent attacks against international, Afghan government, and civilian targets," said ICOS policy analyst Alexander Jackson.

A NATO air strike in a Taliban-controlled area of Konduz killed scores of people this month, angering many Afghans and adding to tensions between Kabul and Western countries with troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban-led insurgency has grown this year out of traditional strongholds in the south and east and has even hit the capital, Kabul. Violence escalated further before the poll.

U.S. officials are debating whether to send even more troops to Afghanistan but uncertainty over the election results and accusations that Karzai's camp has been involved in widespread fraud have made relations even icier.

Preliminary results from about 92 percent of polling stations show Karzai has passed the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a second-round runoff against his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Abdullah has warned a fraudulent outcome "was a recipe for instability". A second round was due to be held on October 1 if needed, but that would now be almost impossible to stage before the onset of winter.

ICOS President Norine MacDonald said this meant a constitutional vacuum and "government paralysis" lasting months were possible.