More than 30,000 U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan, conducting security operations throughout the violence-wracked country. Despite this large international military presence, attacks have risen to an all-time high since the Taleban government was ousted in 2001. VOA Islamabad correspondent Benjamin Sand recently visited Afghanistan and has this report on what is fueling a growing Taleban insurgency.
A U.S. military convoy - near the Pakistan border - heads out to patrol the lawless area, a scene of frequent insurgent ambushes.
Overall, this has been Afghanistan's bloodiest year since 2001, when U.S.-led forces ousted the hard-line Islamist regime for harboring top al-Qaida terrorists.
Officials say that already this year nearly 1,800 people have been killed, including more than 100 foreign troops.
Throughout the country, every type of attack is on the rise - from roadside bombs and suicide attacks, to massive raids on government outposts involving up to several hundred well-armed insurgents.
U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Colonel Tom Collins, says the perpetrators are varied groups but with just one aim.
"The thing that these groups each have in common is they are against the government of Afghanistan and the international community in general, because we are threatening their criminal networks," he said.
The largest and best-known group remains the Taleban. Now in the role of insurgents, Taleban fighters carried out hundreds of deadly attacks this year - most of them in and around their traditional stronghold in the south.
Collins says strict Islamic religious ideology still drives the core group, but there is mounting evidence that poverty - not faith - motivates most of the rank-and-file fighters.
"Unfortunately, the Taleban move into villages and they recruit from young men who are unemployed, who are really not ideologically driven, yet need a job and will do mercenary work for the Taleban," he said.
U.S. officials say, in some areas, the Taleban is offering up to $300 a month - more than three times what the Afghan National Army can pay its new recruits.
In eastern Afghanistan, local residents say the Taleban pays $15 to anyone willing to launch a single mortar round into nearby coalition military bases.
This is a well-funded insurgency by all accounts, being largely underwritten by powerful drug cartels.
More than 90 percent of the world's illegal opium comes from Afghanistan and drug lords thrive on political instability to protect their illicit trade.
Afghan authorities say these drug lords provide the Taleban with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to buy people and weapons, and access to valuable smuggling routes across the border with Pakistan.
This alliance has forced the Taleban to literally sell out a core principle that drug use and cultivation is unIslamic. The hard-line Islamists are now forcing local farmers to grow the illegal opium poppy on behalf of their drug lord bankers.
But there are other Taleban sponsors.
A more natural alliance exists with the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaida - which also uses Afghanistan's instability to provide it a safe haven. Until 2001, the Taleban officially offered al-Qaida chief, Osama bin Laden, political refuge and the Saudi-born terrorist may still be hiding in the country.
The Taleban's support prompted the U.S.-led invasion that forced them out of power. But it also established deep ties with al-Qaida, which continues to fund the Taleban insurgency and provide critical support from bases inside Pakistan.
The Taleban is also aided by looser alliances with tribal war lords and home grown terrorist groups - such as Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin - led by a former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
And finally, says U.S. military spokesman Collins, there is also common crime to deal with in a fractured, war-plagued society.
"Complicating the Taleban and these criminal networks, you also have just basic criminality that occurs out there, sometimes related to land disputes, sometimes it's internal tribal strife, or strife between two tribes," he explained.
With money, illicit connections, and battle-tested local warlords, the Taleban insurgency is more than a ragtag group of former Islamic students and poor mercenaries. Security experts say the Taleban constitutes a potent military threat to NATO and international troops.
Samina Ahmed, the International Crisis Group's director in Islamabad, says many in the insurgency have extensive combat experience, gained fighting the invading Soviet Union in the 1980's. Their leaders include such veteran military commanders as the one-legged Mullah Dadullah, who is notorious for his battlefield ruthlessness.
"I mean, these are not mountain boys, okay? The operational brains are not simple folk," said Ahmed. "You know, there is an assumption, and I think it is such a dangerous assumption that, oh, you know, what a bunch of barbarians. No, they're not; they're some of the most sophisticated fighters in the world."
She says now the Taleban is also ratcheting it up the pressure by borrowing various techniques from like-minded Islamic insurgents in Iraq - including advanced roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
No one knows for sure exactly how many militants there are in the country. U.S. officials refuse to provide even a rough estimate. Afghan authorities say it could be anywhere between 4,000 and 40,000.
Whatever the actual number, there is a growing consensus that even in the best case, defeating the Taleban and its allies will take years.
NATO commanders, who took over security operations in the south three weeks ago, say they expect to be in Afghanistan - in some form - for at least 10 to 15 years or more.