LIANE HANSEN, host:
Every year the Taliban in Afghanistan mounts a spring offensive. But Afghan and foreign observers say this year it has been the strongest since the movement's overthrow. In recent weeks, more than 300 people have been killed in the country's southern areas and the ferocity of the violence has alarmed politicians and security chiefs.
From the Afghan capital Kabul, NPR's Ivan Watson reports on the Taliban's rise in the south.
IVAN WATSON reporting:
A row of modern eight-story office buildings blocks the view from a busy Kabul road of the primitive mud brick houses on a nearby mountainside. These brand-new office buildings and the many construction companies headquartered inside are the product of the construction boom parts of Afghanistan have enjoyed for the last few years. But now Mohammad Hakim, director of the Alpha Brothers Construction Company, fears that time of prosperity is coming to an end.
Mr. MOHAMMAD HAKIM (Alpha Brothers Construction Company): This year (unintelligible) last year was not as bad as this year.
WATSON: Hakim says he's been turning down projects in southern Afghanistan due to the growing violence there.
HAKIM: Due to this problem, (unintelligible) problem, this Taliban problem, some of the areas are difficult to go and work there, like Kandahar.
Colonel TOM COLLINS (U.S. Military Spokesman): If you go to the south, like in northern Helmand, northern Kandahar, Uruzgan, we are seeing that the Taliban has gained some strength and influence in those areas.
WATSON: Colonel Tom Collins is a spokesman for the U.S. Military in Afghanistan.
Col. COLLINS: They had basically adopted smaller unit tactics where you see smaller clusters of them. Lately we've been seeing them operate in groups of, you know, 50, perhaps up to a 100.
WATSON: There is growing alarm in the gilded drawing rooms and fortified compounds of the Afghan capital at the daily reports of roadside bombs, ambushes, assassinations, torched schools and suicide attacks down south. This week, large scale clashes between Taliban and allied Afghan and coalition troops sent several thousand villagers fleeing the countryside to the city of Kandahar.
Many here accuse neighboring Pakistan of not doing enough to stop the infiltration of militants and weapons across the border. At the same time, officials like Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman General Zaher Azimi have also begun laying the blame on their own government.
General ZAHER AZIMI (Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman): (Through translator) People want labor. People want peace. People want security and the government has not been able to deliver these services to people.
Mr. NURO HAKALUMI(ph) (Elected Parliament Member, Kandahar Province): I will tell you, the Taliban (unintelligible) stronger. And our government get weak.
WATSON: Nuro Hakalumi is an elected parliament member from Kandahar Province.
Mr. HAKALUMI: These people right now, not all of them Taliban. Maybe a part of them is Taliban. The other part of them, the people is not happy from government.
WATSON: Another Parliament member named Hiluludin Hilal(ph) agrees. Until 2003, he was a security chief in the Interior Ministry, where, he says, he saw the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai alienate powerful southern tribes as a result of government corruption, nepotism and the appointment of inept officials.
Mr. HILULUDIN HILAL (Parliament Member): (Through translator) The Taliban, they use from the dissatisfaction of the other tribes and they can easily provoke people right now and make them to fight against the government.
WATSON: The Taliban offensive coincides with a move by NATO to replace the U.S. military in southern Afghanistan by the end of July. Hikmet Chetin, the alliance's top representative in Kabul, says the Taliban is trying to break the political will of NATO member countries.
Mr. HIKMET CHETIN (Alliance Representative, Kabul): They want to discourage. They want to test NATO as well.
WATSON: Canada has already lost six soldiers and a diplomat since it sent forces to Kandahar earlier this year. Chetin predicts it will be a long, bloody summer.
Mr. CHETIN: I think it will be a hard summer. We know that. We're faced with a hard summer.
WATSON: President Karzai appears to recognize this too. Yesterday he appointed Fahim Khan, the controversial warlord who once led the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to be one of his top senior advisors. Afghan analysts say the growing trouble in the south may have prompted Karzai to ask for help from this strongman from the north.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Kabul.
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