A British soldier next to the wreckage of a car used in a suicide attack on May 21 (epa)
PRAGUE, May 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting between the Taliban and U.S.-led coalition forces in southern Afghanistan this spring has been the most intense in the country since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Most Western military experts agree that the Taliban offensive this spring is aimed at derailing NATO's expansion into the southern Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan provinces.
Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, says Taliban militants have been mustered for major battles in recent weeks in order to achieve two objectives.
"One reason for the increase in violence [by the Taliban] is to show the NATO forces as they arrive that they are not going to have the situation their own way," Kemp says. "And the second reason is that there is going to be an impact on public opinion [abroad]. This is going to serve to undermine public morale in the troop-contributing nations."
More than 250 people have been killed in a series of battles, ambushes, and bombings since May 16. Many of the dead have been suspected Taliban militants targeted by coalition air strikes. But Afghan government casualties also are higher than in previous years.
Lutfullah Mashal, a former spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, says Taliban fighters no longer rely solely on hit-and-run tactics by small groups of guerrillas. Instead, the Taliban have been concentrating into groups of more than 100 fighters to carry out frontal assaults on government security posts. Mashal says that development explains why deaths in Afghanistan during the past week have topped the number of reported deaths in Iraq in the same period.
"During the past 4 1/2 years, there have always been changes in Taliban fighting tactics. But this latest change is unique," Mashal says. "They have never [concentrated their forces] like this before, and they were never so effective in the past. The Taliban have never caused such high numbers of casualties to [Afghan] government forces before. Now, their attacks are more organized and they have started to fight using [more conventional methods] -- concentrating their forces together. And they have started creating battle lines."
Fighting From The Air
U.S. military officials have told RFE/RL that concentrations of Taliban forces make their job easier because it allows air strikes to be more effective.
But with Taliban fighters taking shelter in residential compounds, the violence also appears to be causing more civilian casualties. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an investigation into reports that at least 16 civilians were killed on May 22 by U.S.-led coalition air strikes on a village near Kandahar.
Within the fledgling national parliament this week, some Afghan politicians say civilian casualties are beginning to turn the feelings of ordinary Afghans against the presence of foreign troops.
Obeidullah is a member of parliament from the western Afghan province of Farah. He tells RFE/RL that Taliban fighters are now getting more support from the Afghan population than they have at any time since 2001.
"One year ago, nobody [in Afghanistan] was giving sanctuary to the Taliban," Obeidullah says. "I think that people are helping them more now."
Karzai and his new foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, have blamed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. They claim Islamabad's security forces chase Al-Qaeda terrorists within Pakistan but do not make any significant efforts to arrest Taliban fighters or stop them from crossing the border into Afghanistan.
Officials in Islamabad have repeatedly denied such allegations. But in the past week, Karzai has used some of his strongest language so far against Islamabad -- alleging that "strategic departments of Pakistan" use Afghanistan as a training field for Islamic militants.
Growing Afghan Resentment?
Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Mudjda says it would be a mistake for U.S. military leaders to overlook what he says is growing resentment among Afghans about civilian deaths from coalition air strikes.
In a recent RFE/RL interview, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaieef, says he thinks Pakistan is supporting cross-border militant attacks into Afghanistan to try to exert influence over the government in Kabul.
Zaieef also says the "complete and sudden withdrawal" of all foreign troops from Afghanistan would lead to civil war in Afghanistan, with much bloodshed.
But Zaieef says U.S. forces have made a mistake by working together with Afghan warlords who are accused of past atrocities. He says such alliances -- together with coalition air strikes that accidentally kill innocent civilians -- are angering Afghans in the south.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ajmal Aand contributed to this report from Kabul.)