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Time is running out in Afghanistan, officials say

KABUL — As the U.S. and its allies try to rush some 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in 2010, intelligence officials warn that the Taliban-led insurgency is expanding and that "time is running out" for the U.S.-led coalition to prove that its strategy can succeed.

The Taliban has created a shadow "government-in-waiting," complete with Cabinet ministers, that could assume power if the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai fails, a senior International Security Assistance Force intelligence official said in Kabul, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of ISAF policy.

As the Obama administration and its European allies face dwindling public and political support for the eight-year-old Afghan war, the Taliban now has what the official called "a full-fledged insurgency" and shadow governors in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, including those in the north, where U.S. and other officials had thought the Islamic extremists posed less of a threat.

The Taliban's return to the northern provinces poses serious security, logistical and political problems for the U.S.-led ISAF and Karzai's government.

The northern region is under the command of German forces, but they and other European contingents operate under restrictions imposed by their governments that limit offensive operations against the Taliban.

The Taliban now threatens the northern supply route that the ISAF established to supplement the vulnerable routes that run through Pakistan, where the U.S.-backed government is battling its own Islamic extremists and growing sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The Taliban in northern Afghanistan is sheltering among and recruiting from large communities of Pashtuns — descendants of settlers transplanted from the south in the early 20th century — fueling tensions with the Uzbeks and Tajiks who dominate the region.

At the same time, though, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens and Arabs linked to al-Qaida have moved into northern Afghanistan with the Taliban, seeking to carry their jihad to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and alarming Russia, which is grappling with Islamic insurgencies in the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.

As the Taliban has extended its reach, it has also grown more formidable militarily by developing bigger and more effective improvised explosive devices. Insurgents have mounted 7,228 IED attacks so far this year, compared with 81 in 2003, and, as McClatchy reported last month, the homemade bombs have even destroyed some Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the most heavily armored U.S. troop transports.

"The IED has become the surface-to-air missile of this war," the ISAF intelligence official said, invoking the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen campaign against Soviet invaders in the 1980s, in which surface-to-air missiles provided largely by the CIA turned the tide by shooting down Soviet helicopters.

The IEDs used in Afghanistan now are made mostly of ammonium nitrate, a chemical commonly used in fertilizer that destroyed a federal office building in Oklahoma City in a bombing in 1995. Much of the ammonium nitrate used in the IEDs has been traced to Pakistan, though Iran and China are major suppliers, the intelligence official said.

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