Coalition forces are intensifying their fight against Taleban remnants and other militants in southeastern Afghanistan. Some of the local support for the militants may be tied to ethnic issues.
Coalition forces, including Afghan army troops and U.S. special forces, are facing off against increasingly large numbers of insurgents in Afghanistan's mountainous Southeast.
Some of the fighting is centered around the village of Daichopan, in an area where the provinces of Zabul, Uruzgan and Ghazni meet.
While casualty figures on either side cannot be confirmed, local sources say the insurgent force numbers in the hundreds.
Previous engagements have pitted coalition troops against much smaller bands of militants, usually numbering just several dozen.
The Afghan Islamic Press, based in Peshawar, Pakistan, quotes one Afghan general as saying the militant formation near Daichopan numbers 800.
The general believes former Afghan leader Mullah Omar, the head of the ousted Taleban government, is also now in the Daichopan area, having fled from a previous hiding place in Uruzgan province.
The general says the bulk of the insurgents are fighters loyal to the ousted Taleban regime, but also include Arabs and Pakistanis.
Taleban guerrillas in other parts of the country have been joined by forces under the rebel warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a member of the Pashtun ethnic group who is also a former Afghan prime minister.
Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, says some of the support for the Taleban insurgency is based along ethnic lines.
Some rural Pashtuns, he says, are supporting the Pashtun-led Taleban in opposition to what they see as a lack of Pashtun influence in the Afghan transitional government.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai is himself of Pashtun descent, most of the transitional government's other top figures are Tajiks from the Northern Alliance, the group that helped the United States oust the Taleban in 2001.
"They [the Pashtuns] think that one occupier has been replaced by another occupier, and their relationship with the Northern Alliance has always been very adversarial," he said.
Afghanistan is due to hold general elections by June 2004, and Mr. Masood says that if the next government includes a strong voice for the Pashtuns -who make up the majority of Afghanistan's population - then local support for renegade Taleban elements would drop sharply.