DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Afghanistan's two presidential candidates have spent the summer fighting over who won the country's June 14 runoff election. At the same time, the Taliban has spent the summer launching large-scale offensives around the country. As U.S. and NATO troops continue their drawdown, Taliban fighters are growing bolder. NPR's Sean Carberry reports.
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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: My producer Sultan Faizy and I spent a recent morning making calls to Afghans, just regular citizens in some of the country's hotspots. We reached Ahmadullah, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. He's a shopkeeper in the restive Sangin District of southern Helmand province. Sangin has been one of the bloodiest and most contested districts in the country. A couple of months ago, an estimated 800 Taliban, unprecedented numbers, stormed the district.
AHMADULLAH: (Through translator) Still it's not stable, it's not secure here in this market. There's a great uncertainty unfortunately because we haven't seen a specific achievement from Afghan security forces.
CARBERRY: Have many people fled from the area? What are they doing?
AHMADULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).
CARBERRY: Ahmadullah says he can't even count how many people have fled the district. Some just ran into the desert and built tents. He says those who remain are desperately short on food and water. He adds that he's lost two children and a brother in the fighting. Next, we reach Juma Khan in Logar Province, which sits just to the south of Kabul. Khan is unemployed and living in Logar's Charkh District. At least 100 militants are reported to have launched an attack there recently.
JUMA KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).
CARBERRY: Khan says the Taliban now control remote areas of the district and keep staging attacks on the district center. He says the fighting is much worse this year than the last few years. We heard similar comments from residents in other parts of the country. Publicly, NATO disagrees with that. Major General Steve Townsend is commander of NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan. He says violence levels are down this year. But he admits that assessment could also be a function of having fewer troops, and therefore fewer eyes, on the battlefield now.
STEVE TOWNSEND: Clearly our ability to know what's happening out there for sure is less.
CARBERRY: The U.N. and analysts in Kabul argue that violence is significantly higher this summer. Graeme Smith is with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. He's built a database tracking Taliban offensives against district centers.
GRAEME SMITH: It's not really something you had to track in previous years.
CARBERRY: But with the drawdown of NATO forces, and especially the reduction in air support, he says the Taliban are massing in ways not seen since the early days of the war.
SMITH: The Taliban used small, you know, guerrilla-style tactics because they really did have a fear of U.S. air power. And that fear is diminishing now.
CARBERRY: Major General Afzal Aman, head of operations in the Ministry of Defense, says the government expected a big push from the Taliban this summer. He argues that Afghan forces are more than holding their own.
MAJOR GENERAL AFZAL AMAN: (Through translator) The Taliban couldn't capture a single district. But they suffered great casualties, and Afghan forces retook all those areas that were temporarily captured.
CARBERRY: Aman concedes Afghan forces are taking higher casualties this year. But some Afghan officials around the country say militants are in fact taking and holding ground. Smith agrees.
SMITH: The government positions are slowly eroding at the fringes.
CARBERRY: He argues that for Afghan forces just to battle to a stalemate, it will need billions of dollars more than the international community has currently budgeted. In the meantime, the U.N.'s Georgette Gagnon says civilians are paying the price.
GEORGETTE GAGNON: Ground engagements - this is fighting between Afghan forces and insurgents - have become the leading cause of civilian casualties.
CARBERRY: Gagnon says the increase in ground fighting is the main reason civilian casualties have reached record levels this year. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.
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