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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taliban Raids Widen in Parts of Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The Taliban, backed by new volunteers from Pakistan, are regrouping and steadily expanding their attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan, their former stronghold, according to Afghan officials, Western diplomats and captured fighters.

The clashes have increased since mid-August, particularly in Zabul Province and other parts of the southeast. Two U.S. soldiers were killed Sunday in a 90-minute gun battle in Paktika Province after a week of fighting that was the fiercest in months, the Pentagon said. It said dozens of Taliban had died, as had nine Afghan soldiers. To date, 35 American soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan.

In the region generally, Western diplomats said, the Taliban have changed their tactics. Not only are U.S. forces being attacked, but so are Afghan policemen, aid workers and midlevel officials. The United Nations reports that attacks on aid workers, most of them Afghans, have "intensified significantly" since May.

The intermittent assaults have made the south and the east an unpredictable mosaic of territory that is safe one day and dangerous the next. As a result, United Nations officials say the pace of reconstruction and investment is slowing and that the populace, nearly all of whom are ethnic Pashtuns, is becoming more alienated from the government in Kabul and its U.S. backers.

Westerners active in the area warn of a slow deterioration, though not an immediate collapse.

U.S. military officials agree that the Taliban are becoming more sophisticated in their tactics but say they are failing to regain power. "They're trying to reinvigorate and resurrect their movement," said Colonel Pat Donohue, who is about to step down as commander of allied forces in Kandahar, "but they haven't been very successful."

But other Westerners are urging Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the United States to immediately increase aid, security and ties to Pashtun tribes in the area. "There needs to be a political offensive in the south," said a Western diplomat, who warned that the Taliban are trying to destabilize the southeast.

The U.S. administration is expected to double reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, and a new U.S. military unit of 120 soldiers is to be established in December in Kandahar to coordinate and provide security for aid projects. But United Nations officials and aid workers say international peacekeepers now confined to Kabul must also be deployed to the south and other regions.

As the weak central government has failed to extend its writ in isolated parts of the south, Western diplomats say the Taliban are trying to fill the vacuum. In many districts, the only evidence of government authority is a district leader protected by a small group of poorly paid and ill-equipped police. Residents complain of lawlessness and say that while they do not support the Taliban, they miss its strict law and order.

Some of the stepped-up Taliban campaign has involved basic propaganda. "Night letters" left in villages and cities play on the lack of aid and a sense among Pashtuns that they are not adequately represented in the new national government. Residents are told that the United States is interested in occupying Muslim countries, not in aiding them.

Taliban gunmen are also showing a new, uncharacteristic diplomacy, according to reports received by aid groups. On rural roads, gunmen give men who shave their beards or listen to music a brief sermon and send them on their way. In the past, such offenders landed in jail.

The gunmen are "smiling and friendly," said Nick Downie, a security coordinator with the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, a nonprofit group.

But Afghans who cooperate with the government or the United States are being killed. Two police chiefs, two pro-government imams, and more than 30 policemen were killed in the south and east in July and August, Afghan officials said. The increased attacks on Afghans coincide with the release in late June of an audiotape said to be from Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban commander. The speaker announced the formation of a 10-member leadership council to "expedite jihad against occupation forces" under a new strategy.

Western diplomats say the Taliban seem to have begun psychological warfare. "They have a sophisticated strategy of going after local people," a senior Western diplomat said. "The mantra they use is that the Americans and the international community will leave someday, and we will come back."

Attacks are on the rise in Wardak and Logar Provinces, both just south of Kabul, where nine policemen were killed in August, aid officials said.

Because of the danger, the number of aid groups operating in Kandahar, the south's largest city, has dropped by 50 percent to a dozen, Downie said. UN officials say the number has remained constant.

Cities, like Kandahar, remain relatively safe. But aid workers warn that Kandahar, now a bustling city brimming with construction projects, could become an island of security in a sea of needy and religiously conservative villages.