Boucher said military activity always drops off during Afghanistan's harsh winters, and increases with each spring thaw. Further, he said, Afghan and coalition forces are finally able to patrol new areas of the country, increasing the opportunities for combat.
"What fundamentally is going on here is that the [Afghan] government, the [Afghan] army -- the governmental authority in Afghanistan is pushing out into new areas, into areas where there hasn't been a lot of government, into areas where the Taliban operated freely," Boucher said. "You have NATO expanding out into different provinces now, and there's some effort by the Taliban not only to challenge the government, but also to challenge the NATO troops and see how they'll react compared to how U.S. forces react."
Rallying The Drug Producers
James Phillips, who specializes in foreign-security issues at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to three ways the Taliban have been able to mount a much stronger insurgency this year than they have in past years. First, he said, they've had time to regroup. Second, they're getting increasingly more help from sympathizers on the other side of Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
Finally, Phillips said that the Taliban "also is trying to capitalize on the Afghan government's strengthening antinarcotics campaign, and it's trying to reach out to poppy farmers and drug smugglers and refiners. Some of the most recent reports have described an upsurge in fighting in Helmand Province, which is the epicenter of the Afghan poppy production."
Phillips noted that Karzai's government has had a spotty record trying to persuade Afghan farmers to give up the cultivation of opium poppy, one of the country's major cash crops.
Taliban Operating More Easily
Frederic Grare, who studies foreign affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Taliban didn't even have to wait for this year's spring thaw to begin making trouble for the forces of the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. He said it reorganized well enough to make its presence felt last winter.
Grare also pointed to civilian unrest in Afghanistan as making the Taliban's job easier. He said he's not sure whether the population in some regions are actively helping the insurgents or even joining them, but they're not resisting them, either.
"The Taliban are regrouped. It does operate also on a larger scale because it's easier now for them," Grare said. "It's easier because, again, the population is no longer opposing them, in a way. So in many places along the border [with Pakistan], the day may belong to the coalition forces, but night belongs to the Taliban, and the whole population wants to be out of the confrontation. It's difficult to say whether they're [the Taliban are] massively recruiting the population, but do they operate easier? Yes, definitely."
Hostility To Foreign Presence
Grare said this indicates a broader problem for the United States and its allies: the simmering hostility of the Afghan people. Primarily, he said, they resent the U.S. troops because they are perceived, more than forces from other countries, as supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai.
And Grare said most Afghans see Karzai as corrupt. He stressed that the government isn't necessarily abusive to the Afghan people, merely negligent. "Afghanistan is so poor that if you don't do something about it, then clearly the people are being hurt and live miserably," he said.
"Corruption to some extent acceptable, providing government delivers," Grare added. "At this time we have a government which delivers very little and is very corrupt. So, you know, that makes corruption even less acceptable."
Grare said if the United States isn't careful, the Afghans could end up rejecting its forces just as they violently rejected the Soviets during the 1980s. But he said such an outcome is by no means imminent, and he believes Washington has time to rectify the situation.
Adapting To Xenophobia
Phillips of the Heritage Foundation agreed that there is public resentment, and he expressed concern about it. But he said such feelings are common among the populations of countries hosting foreign forces.
"There's always going to be people trying to stir up those charges," he said. "The U.S. should be concerned, but it should realize that no matter what it does, there're going to be people spreading disinformation about Karzai's government being corrupt, being ineffective. There are networks that specialize in whipping up people to a frenzy. I don't think there's anything the U.S. can do about that."
Phillips said xenophobia has long been a problem in Afghanistan, and the United States and its allies there are just going to have to get used to coping with that reality. He said a change of military behavior, not a significant change of policy, is all that is necessary to improve relations with the Afghan people.