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Seven members of the coalition forces have been killed in the region in the last two months. Improved technologies and coordination among the militants have led officials to think that al Qaeda has had a direct hand in the violence.

“The insurgents appear to be well-resourced - better trained and led than in the past, when efforts appeared ad hoc,” said one Western aid official who spoke on the condition that he not be named to avoid jeopardizing his security.

Locals, meanwhile, are forced to provide militants with food, shelter and money that may total as much as a quarter of their farming profits. Rolling checkpoints harass motorists on the outskirts of Kunduz city.

The absence of governance and a dire shortage of police are partly to blame for the violence. The district chief has said that he has fewer than 30 men to safeguard 80,000 residents. As a result, they are under the de facto control of about 3,000 militants who often travel in convoys of pickup trucks.

A 23-year-old district resident who gave his name as Farhad said the militants typically move in groups of 10 to 12 but have been appearing in his village almost daily and in larger numbers.

Because some 15,000 Taliban surrendered when the U.S. and the Northern Alliance, a U.S.-allied Afghan militia, defeated them in 2001, Farhad added, many suspect that the Taliban are now supported by the U.S. and its allies to justify their continued presence - a view not uncommon in the Afghan backcountry.

Attacks surged in the run-up to the Aug. 20 presidential election, according to local police chief Gen. Mohammed Razaq Yaqubi. Supply vehicles were repeatedly hit en route to the headquarters of a German provincial reconstruction team. Incumbent President Hamid Karzai’s running mate, warlord Gen. Mohammed Qasim Fahim, narrowly escaped an ambush in the area, and errant rockets were fired into the city on the day of the vote.

In Chahar Dara, people were “so frightened of Taliban threats that almost no one voted,” said Abdul Wahed Omar Khil, 25, another district resident. “People did not want to even leave their homes that day.” Two other militant-contested districts were similarly affected.

In Baghlan province, a Pashtun stronghold south of Kunduz that is currently the second thrust of the northern insurgency, running gunbattles shut down 14 polling sites and killed a district police chief and at least 21 Taliban fighters, local officials say, in the worst election-day violence nationwide.

Such trends have alarmed Pentagon officials faced with record casualties as fighting grinds on in the southern provinces amid decreasing support for the war in the U.S.

Gen. McChrystal last week presented a strategic review to NATO and U.S. military leaders focusing on increasing protection for civilian populations and partnering with Afghan security forces. No formal request for troop increases was included, but one is expected soon.

While thousands of American reinforcements have poured into the south, other countries with troops serving in Afghanistan have refused to deploy there.

Until recently, Germans were barred from combat operations, to the annoyance of American military planners. But the spike in attacks has precipitated a change in their rules of engagement.

In July, the Germans embarked on their biggest military offensive since World War II to clear Chahar Dara. Residents and local Taliban leaders said the sweep temporarily displaced militants but that they returned as soon as the German troops headed back to their base.

Back in Germany, the war’s unpopularity has become a contentious political issue, with opposition leaders calling for a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan ahead of German parliamentary elections at the end of this month. Some suspect the Taliban of actively trying to exploit this divide.

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