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“We have wrested the momentum from the enemies. … It is clear that you [international forces] and our Afghan partners are putting unprecedented pressure on the enemies of a free and peaceful Afghanistan,” CIA Director David H. Petraeus said in a July speech while he was still commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But other reports challenged Mr. Petraeus’ assessments. The International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, reported in August that more districts are in fact coming under Taliban control as the insurgency spreads to areas seen until recently as safe.

Poll after poll shows that the biggest issue for Afghans is the lack of security. Even in southern Kandahar, the former Taliban headquarters where the U.S. generals claim to have made progress, violence is a part of life.

Ehsanullah Khan, who has run an education center for girls and boys in southern Kandahar for the past six years, says his life is constantly in danger.

It’s not just the Taliban, but ultraconservative government officials, tribal elders, even his neighbors who object to girls going to school. Mr. Khan says he will be killed if he leaves Kandahar, and he is unsafe even within the city.

“I play hide and seek,” he said. “Where is the security in this country? Where is freedom?”

There were 2,108 clashes and other violent incidents per month for the latest quarter, up 39 percent from the comparable period last year, according to the United Nations. And last year was the deadliest of the war for international troops, with more than 700 killed.

In recent months, brazen daylight attacks have been mounted with alarming regularity, including an assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in June, a 20-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in September and an attack that killed a CIA contractor at one of the agency’s offices in Kabul, also in September.

In the north, several senior police chiefs and a governor have been killed, among others. Last month, a suicide bomber killed former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the council tasked to talk peace with the Taliban.

The Northern Alliance, with whom the U.S. aligned in 2001, is secretly arming once again, according to former anti-Taliban fighters interviewed in northern Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. Their information was confirmed privately by a top U.S. official.

And in the south, attacks have killed the mayor of Kandahar, the provincial police chief of Kandahar, the deputy governor of Kandahar province and the half brother of President Hamid Karzai.

The Taliban also managed to dig a tunnel under the main prison in Kandahar earlier this year and free more than 400 prisoners, most of them Taliban fighters.

U.S. generals dismiss the attacks as signs of desperation within the Taliban ranks. But others say they show that a stronger insurgency now can infiltrate Afghan institutions and slip into parts of the capital, Kabul, under the tightest security control.

The Taliban also have taken over highways, severely limiting people from moving around.

The Taliban have returned in part because Afghans have learned to expect little from a failed government and institutions wracked with corruption.

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