KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan intelligence agencies believe Taliban and al Qaeda forces are preparing a major offensive against Kabul, moving into positions as little as 12 miles from the capital and sending recruits from the U.S. and Britain into the city to collect information needed to kidnap Westerners and prepare for spectacular suicide attacks.
The information, provided in Afghan security reports seen by The Washington Times, coincides with preparations for a major battle in the southern city of Kandahar, which have dominated headlines in recent days.
Interviews with eyewitnesses during a recent visit to Khost province, adjacent to the Pakistani tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, appeared to confirm other intelligence reports of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters moving from Pakistan to Afghanistan, presumably for a spring offensive.
Until recently, U.S. and Afghan officials had dismissed speculation of an enemy surge as snow melted in mountain passes used as key infiltration and supply routes.
But the destruction of the main prison in Kandahar in a brazen attack last week that freed hundreds of Taliban prisoners prompted the Afghan government to fly about 700 reinforcements from Kabul to Kandahar earlier this week.
Unreported thus far are Taliban and al Qaeda plans for Kabul, the seat of President Hamid Karzai's government located about 300 miles northeast of Kandahar.
"Spectacular/High Profile attack in Kabul," is expected to take place in the upcoming months and "female suicide members present in Kabul. ... U.S./British citizens" one recent security report states.
"They want to send a message," said one Afghan security official in Kabul with access to the same report. "I don't know if that message can be stopped."
Intelligence reports further suggested that al Qaeda had successfully recruited U.S., British and German citizens, presumably for their advanced language skills and ability to mix with Westerners without arousing suspicion.
Some of al Qaeda's recruits are plants introduced to infiltrate locations frequented by foreigners to gain knowledge of building layouts and activities, said a second security official.
In March, the Taliban senior commander, Mullah Bradar, was threatening that attacks would increase in the spring using new techniques, and he warned Afghans working with the government to quit their jobs or risk being targeted.
"My best friend, I asked him not to go work in Paktika province for the coalition as an interpreter," said an interpreter from Khost province who works for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"He needed the money and did not listen. A little more than a week ago he was captured by Taliban. They poured acid on his body and shot him through the mouth."
These deaths are a warning to the Afghan people that the Taliban "will not tolerate any Afghan person working with international forces," said the interpreter, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
"But we need the money for our families or we will die of starvation, and many of us do not want the Taliban to return. We will take the risk and die without regret," the interpreter said.
In Kandahar, meanwhile, Taliban forces had taken control of the city's outer ring road by noon Tuesday as a mass exodus of women, children and others on foot, bicycle and mules fled the city for the mountains in anticipation of a huge battle with U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.
Eyewitness reports said coalition forces had taken positions on rooftops in Kandahar in anticipation of an attack.
Also on Tuesday, Taliban forces kidnapped an engineer working on a road project in Kandahar province.
No information was available regarding his whereabouts or "if he's been beheaded or tortured," said an official source who was investigating the case.
Details about the engineer are not being released pending further investigation, said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by insurgents in Iraq have turned up with increasing frequency in Afghanistan.
So have rocket attacks and suicide bombings against U.S. and other international forces.
Mullah Bradar has said the attacks would continue until Mr. Karzai is ousted and U.S. and NATO forces withdraw.
U.S. and NATO military officials have dismissed the idea of a Taliban spring offensive as the "same old nonsense," saying the only offensive that will take place this year in Afghanistan is one by Western and Afghan troops.
But during the past week, a palpable tension has gripped Kabul, and people were preparing to leave the city.
NATO and the U.S. "miscalculated what the Taliban is capable of," said the Afghan security official.
"This is something that people must know. If the Taliban gains control of Afghanistan again, especially from the United States, it will open the door to the terrorists. ... They will say not even the greatest superpower can defeat them."
Additional NATO and Afghan forces have been redeploying to meet the threat by Taliban fighters in Arghandab district just north of Kandahar province, hoping to push out the estimated 500 Taliban fighters who have moved there.
The strategy does little to calm jitters in Kabul.
"Despite the checkpoints in the city and high security surrounding high-profile locations, such as the Serena Hotel in Kabul, the suicide bombers are here," said another Afghan official, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
An Afghan business owner whose livelihood relies on foreigners told The Times that "a lot of business people with money are moving outside of Kabul" and in many cases moving outside "of Afghanistan because they fear more attacks in the city and these attacks can occur at any moment."
As tension mounted, the poorest of Kabul's citizens went about their business Tuesday.
Women, many covered in blue burqas and others with only the full head scarf, shuffled about the marketplaces or headed home with children in tow across the rocky streets and broken pavement.
The smell of roasting lamb wafted amid smog-shrouded city streets, where donkey carts carried fruit, children played and beggars took their daily positions.
Many men in the city continued to sport long beards and Taliban-style turbans, while others sought to blend in, shaving off their beards and wearing Western clothes.
"Life goes on, and this is Afghanistan," said an American woman named Elizabeth, who has worked in the city for more than two years with a private aid organization. "You fall in love with Afghanistan and its people, but you know in your heart it is a place that can take your life from you before you even have a chance to know what's going on."