The months leading up to the Sept. 18, 2005 elections have proven the bloodiest since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban nearly four years ago. Since the start of the year, homemade bombs, coalition military operations and gun fights lasting hours have killed close to 1,000 people, up from 850 for the whole of 2004.
According to international groups, Taliban insurgents in the country's southern and eastern regions account for the majority of deaths. Though not as powerful as they once were, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 active Taliban militants continue to attack Afghan and coalition forces in an effort to expel foreign troops and destabilize the government of Hamid Karzai. Many of the group's leaders are former Taliban government officials, including the former intelligence chief, minister of tribal affairs and defense minister.
The Taliban also has recruited young guerrillas from Islamic boarding schools to replace those who have defected or been killed, the U.S. military's operational commander Jason Kamiya told the Associated Press.
"They are reconstituting themselves with the less-experienced and the young," Kamiya said.
Operating in small cells, insurgents have been responsible for beheadings, assassinations and the detonation of homemade explosives targeting troops as well as other public officials and supporters of reconstruction and democracy.
Much of the direct combat is concentrated along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
A number of regional observers have noted that insurgent strategies have grown bolder and more sophisticated. U.S. officials have also expressed concern about the Taliban studying the tactics of Iraqi insurgents and borrowing their strategies.
"It would be extremely naive of us not to believe that the enemy is a thinking, learning, adapting enemy. There is certainly learning that is going on and we have to remind ourselves of not falling into the trap of not understanding it," a U.S. defense official told Knight Ridder on the condition of anonymity.
Officials also worry about the connections the Taliban is drawing from its own insurgent movement and that in Iraq, framing the uprisings in both countries in the context of a larger war against the U.S. and its allies.
In one of the worst attacks since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a July explosion at the funeral of an anti-Taliban Islamic scholar at a mosque in Kandahar killed 20 people. After initially claiming responsibility, the Taliban denied involvement. Authorities, however, believe that Taliban insurgents are linked to the attack.
Recent attacks have also killed hundreds of civilians, aid workers and religious leaders as well as three parliamentary candidates. About 70 U.S. troops have been killed so far in Afghanistan this year, the most deadly since 2001.
According to Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute, the insurgency in Afghanistan is well-funded and increasingly well-organized, due in large part to financial and logistical support from the terrorist network al-Qaida.
"They are getting more assistance from non-Afghan, non-Pakistani elements, which smells of al-Qaida. There is a possibility that al-Qaida sees this as a second front to weaken our resolve and put greater pressure on us both in Iraq and Afghanistan," Weinbaum said.
As the nation's first parliamentary elections approach, Afghan and foreign officials worry the insurgency could undermine democratic efforts. A joint report by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission released in August describes "escalating threats and attacks against candidates, election workers, civic educators, religious leaders, government leaders and national and international security forces." The report cites anti-government groups as the most pressing threat to democratic elections.
But despite the surge in violence leading up to the election, experts believe that derailing September's parliamentary elections is not an immediate nor attainable goal of the insurgency. Instead most argue it is but part of a general campaign aimed at ending foreign influence in Afghan affairs, reversing fledgling democratic reforms and reinstating an Islamic government.
In late August, Taliban spokesman Mullah Latif Hakimi announced that insurgents would not target polling stations during the elections.
"We are against the elections and we are against any government policies, but we don't want to attack these elections and create problems for innocent people," Hakimi told the Associated Press.
Most reports from the region indicate that the insurgency has become an umbrella for various Islamic and nationalistic groups who have allied with the Taliban.
One prominent group is Hezb-e-Islami, whose several hundred members are led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord exiled in Iran during the Taliban rule. The group fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Afghan drug, lumber and gem smugglers and foreign and al-Qaida fighters also have allied themselves with the insurgent cause.
In an effort to unify the country and undermine the insurgency, Afghan and U.S. leaders have offered amnesty to low and mid-level Taliban fighters. In exchange for taking an oath of allegiance to the Afghan government, former Taliban members can reintegrate into Afghan society without being prosecuted. Authorities are extending the olive branch to all but the most senior 50-100 Taliban leaders who, if caught, would be tried for terrorism and war crimes.
Thus far, U.S. and Afghan officials have praised the program's success, attributing it to weakened resolve of Taliban members and their harsh living conditions. Several hundred former Taliban members have renounced the insurgency and returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan.
"The response has been tremendous. So many of them are fed up and want to come home, as long as they are promised they will be treated well," a senior Afghan official overseeing an amnesty program told the Washington Post.
U.S. military officials are confident that dwindling Taliban membership is a considerable setback for the insurgency.
"Many of them are just plain tired of fighting and constantly being on the run," Col. Gary Cheek, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, told the AP.
But while experts see the reconciliation program as a promising roadmap to a unified Afghanistan, much of the general public is skeptical of the intentions of former Taliban amnesty seekers. Many Taliban fighters are still hiding in neighboring Pakistan, uncertain of their safety should they return.