Brazen public executions by the Taliban this month in provinces not traditionally part of their stronghold underscore the militants' resurgence in Afghanistan.
The Taliban stoned to death a young couple in the northern Kunduz province, and in a second incident first flogged and then fatally shot a pregnant widow in Badghis province in the northwest. All three were accused of adultery.
"A lot of the discussion, particularly in Washington, has attempted to draw a line that in the south everything is Taliban-controlled and in the north we have made progress," said Lyric Thompson, senior policy analyst with Women for Women International, which has been working in Afghanistan since 2002.
The stoning in Kunduz demonstrates that this belief is flawed, Ms. Thompson said. "It is basically Kabul, and then there is everything outside of Kabul."
A recent United Nations report held the Taliban responsible for a 31 percent increase in conflict-related Afghan civilian casualties in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2009.
Many analysts and Western officials say Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has failed to provide adequate security or judicial institutions, thereby creating a vacuum that has been exploited by the Taliban.
Average Afghans also frequently cite provincial government officials as being the primary source of injustice and insecurity in their communities.
"The Karzai government is the product of many unprincipled compromises over the years with corrupt, powerful figures who are out to help themselves not their constituents. That, in turn, created an environment that allowed the Taliban to regain influence in much of the country. It's a double whammy," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
Human rights have suffered a setback in parts of the country where the Taliban exercise de facto control.
Women and girls most often are the worst affected and find their ability to attend school, work or even venture outside their homes curtailed. Many pay with their lives for defying such restrictions.
A Western official in Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss the situation on the ground, said efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds are stymied by the fact that some members of the Afghan government and even the president's own half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, "do not have stellar records when it comes to protecting human rights."
Ahmed Wali Karzai is the top Afghan official in southern Kandahar province, where U.S. troops are engaged in operations against the Taliban.
But many groups working in Afghanistan say there has been a slight improvement in human rights since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
"From our perspective it has improved, although not as quickly as most would like," said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women.
The international community is funding projects focused on promoting women's rights and building community awareness.
"This is all a very good sign, but it will collapse and the situation will reverse if the Taliban take over the country," Ms. Naderi said.
Afghan-led reconciliation efforts aimed at giving positions in government to Taliban leaders who renounce violence have fueled fears that the Taliban could acquire positions of authority.
The situation is complicated by a July 2011 date set by the Obama administration to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops.
While President Obama had tied the troop reduction to improvements on the ground, most Afghans interpret the date as a definite one on which the troops would begin to leave their country.
"The danger is the Afghans think there will be a precipitous withdrawal … and so the damage has already been done," said Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute.
Ms. Naderi said the constant refrain of the start of a drawdown in July 2011 weakens the position of U.S. troops.
"The Taliban can just sit back and wait," she said.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, this week left open the possibility that he would advise Mr. Obama not to remove troops next year.
The Taliban are not the only menace to women. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found more than 50 percent of Afghan women are victims of domestic violence.
Traditional practices such as "baad," which involves the exchange of girls or women between families or tribes as restitution for a crime, debt or dispute, and "honor killings" are seen by rights groups as grim evidence of the challenges they face in Afghanistan.
Ms. Naderi's group helped Bibi Aisha, an Afghan girl whose nose and ears were chopped off by her angry husband, a Taliban fighter, because she fled frequent beatings by her in-laws.
Bibi Aisha's uncle had killed a relative of the man and her father gave his two daughters to the victim's family to settle the debt.
While Bibi Aisha is undergoing treatment in the U.S., Ms. Naderi worries about the teenager's younger sister who is still in Taliban-controlled Oruzgan province.
Recalling a visit to Kabul in 1998 during which he was struck by the absence of women in the streets, Mr. Weinbaum said if the Taliban are given some form of formal authority women will retreat into the woodwork.
"The situation is not an ideal one now, but it can get a lot worse," he said.
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