ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency is spreading. It's reaching more and more towns and villages, and even some provinces in the north that had never been Taliban strongholds. Suicide attacks are on the rise in once peaceful areas. And last week, Taliban fighters attacked a district only 45 miles from the capital, Kabul.
As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, Afghans increasingly fear that NATO and Afghan forces will lose the war.
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Najab(ph) is a small town and lush farmland beneath the snowcapped Hindu Kush Mountains. The town, northeast of Kabul, is reached by unpaved roads. Najab's residents are mostly Tajiks. It's this ethnic group that dominated the country's northern alliance - that with the United States defeated the Taliban in 2001.
Residents here say they are still loyal to Afghanistan's fledgling democracy, whatever their government's flaws maybe. But they are alarmed that their humble town of single-story mud homes is now only 12 miles from a new front in the war with the Taliban.
Mr. ABDUL KAYUM NADINI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Abdul Kayum Nadini says he's not surprised that Taliban fighters have made it this far north from their traditional strongholds in the south. Nadini, a 61-year-old teacher at Najab's high school for girls, said the insurgents are skilled at filling a growing vacuum in Afghan lives. He says rising unemployment, sermons by area mullahs about increasing corruption and immorality, and the lack of post-Taliban era development in Najab are fertile ground for the Taliban - even if they are ethnic Pashtuns, the historic rivals of Tajiks.
On the way to his house, Nadini pointed out half-built columns of concrete and steel covered by burlap bags that was supposed to have become a boy's school -that is until an Afghan contractor ran off with $370,000 building fund. The Taliban, on the other hand, gives out money to underemployed youths and promises their elders a return to Islamic values.
Nadini says people in this province who are not tempted by Taliban handouts and slogans are usually intimidated into not fighting back. It's a trend being repeated across a third of Afghanistan's provinces. Many Afghan and Western officials say an insurgency once concentrated in the south has spread to the east, and more recently to parts of the west and north.
As the Taliban's influence over Afghan towns and villages grows, so does its viciousness. Increasingly, Taliban fighters are using al-Qaida tactics. They kidnap aide workers and journalists and sometimes behead Afghan captives. They send suicide bombers into civilian crowds.
The Taliban is also taking advantage of the growing weakness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, which is widely viewed as corrupt and unable even with Western help, to provide security for Afghans. The Taliban have even forged an unholy alliance with opium smugglers, who's growing business while deemed un-Islamic, is helping fund the insurgency.
U.N. Mission in Afghanistan spokesman Adrian Edwards.
Mr. ADRIAN EDWARDS (Spokesman, U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan): What's been happening rather quaintly and is only starting to be picked up on is that there are also significant problems in the southeast and the east of the country. The east of the country is closer to traditional, if you like, sort of roots by which a conflict would come into this country. So, yes, there is concern about that.
NELSON: That, Edwards says, and the fact that the Taliban fighters these days appear to be better funded with more arms, even though they still are no match for NATO. Remote-controlled roadside bombs this week alone killed eight Afghan intelligence agency workers in eastern Lakhman province. The growing insecurity is forcing international aid groups to curtail their work in a growing number of provinces.
That adds to Afghans' despair and a growing feeling that at least under Taliban rule, there was quiet.
NELSON: Qurban Ali Uruzgani is a senior member of the Shura or council in the southern province of Helmand.
Mr. QURBAN ALI URUZGANI (Senior Helmand Shura Council): (Through translator) People aren't for the Taliban, but they need a strong and capable government. The situation has made them feel hopeless.
NELSON: The U.N.'s Edwards says Afghans aren't the only ones.
Mr. EDWARDS: It's a long struggle. I think, with hard work and certainly nobody at the moment is looking cheerful here in the next few months ahead.
NELSON: The Taliban on the other hand appears emboldened by its growing momentum. One southern Taliban commander, Ibrahim Hannifi, agreed to be interviewed by phone.
Mr. IBRAHIM HANIFI (Taliban Commander, Afghanistan): (Through translator) We receive messages from time to time from our leader, Mullah Omar, telling us to be patient and wait for the reestablishment of the regime that will spread Islam throughout the world. It may take some time, maybe five or 10 years. But we will finally retake Afghanistan.
NELSON: Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban official, says the insurgents' immediate goal is more simple: make Afghans frightened and angry enough to reject Karzai's government and its NATO allies. A new twist on an old tactic Afghans used to oust the Soviets and the British from their country years ago.
Mr. WAHID MUJDA (Former Taliban Official): (Through translator) There aren't enough NATO forces to have them everywhere at the same time. So what the Taliban is doing is capturing a district. Then when NATO and Afghan forces go to take it back, the Taliban captures another district. Their strategy is to prolong this tiring war in Afghanistan and cause friction between America and Europe.
NELSON: But U.S. General Dan McNeil, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, says Taliban leaders are mistaken if they think the West will give up that easily. He says NATO forces have already started to take stronger action such as when the soldiers recently recaptured a district in Helmand province from the Taliban. He hints that more action in the Taliban's stronghold is on the way.
General DAN McNEIL (Commander, Western Forces in Afghanistan): I am well aware that people believe the insurgency could spread. I just happen to know a little bit about counterinsurgency, and I can tell you there are no silver bullets, there are no quick fixes. It simply doesn't happen overnight.
NELSON: But lawmaker Jalal Adeen Halal(ph), who serves on the Afghan parliament's defense committee, says NATO is not doing enough to turn the tide.
Mr. JALAL ADEEN HALAL (Member, Afghanistan's National Assembly): (Through translator) The international community has failed in this fight because they don't have enough specific policy for this war, nor do they coordinate enough with the Afghan government. We should not think this Taliban crisis would only affect Afghan people. Remember that the Taliban hosted al-Qaida and what that group did beyond our borders.
NELSON: Back in Najab, teacher Nadini shares Jalal's pessimistic outlook.
Mr. NADINI: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He likens the current NATO approach against the Taliban to trying to kill a tree by cutting off some branches. He adds that unless the Afghan government starts doing more to reach out to its people, the Taliban will continue to fill the void.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
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