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The Taliban's influence in northern Afghanistan has expanded in recent months from a few hotspots to much of the region, as insurgents respond to the U.S.-led coalition's surge in the south by seizing new ground in areas once considered secure.
Taliban militants stop traffic nightly at checkpoints on the road from Kabul to Uzbekistan, just outside Baghlan province's capital city of Pul-e-Khumri, frequently blowing up fuel convoys and seizing travelers who work with the government or the international community.
In many areas here and the rest of the north, the Taliban have effectively supplanted the official authorities, running local administrations and courts, and conscripting recruits.
"Day by day, the Taliban are advancing into new districts," said provincial council chief Mohammad Rasoul Mohseni of Baghlan.
Such advances challenge the coalition strategy that assumes Taliban losses in its southern heartland would undermine the entire insurgency, driving the militants to pursue peace on terms acceptable to the West.
The northern provinces where the Taliban presence has grown in recent months — such as Baghlan, on the crossroads of highways linking Kabul to Central Asia — are among Afghanistan's most strategically important.
The number of insurgent attacks in Baghlan alone jumped to 163 in the third quarter, from 73 in the second quarter, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.
Senior coalition officials say their focus on a counterinsurgency campaign in the south and the east remains justified, despite recent setbacks in the north. "I believe that we now have the right strategy in place," the coalition's commander, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, said in a speech in London last week.
Gen. Petraeus expects to show progress in pacifying the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Portugal in November and at the White House's Afghan policy review in December.
Yet, though the coalition has gained some ground in the south since President Barack Obama ordered a surge in December, insurgent activity there is more intense than ever. And while NATO says it has begun to facilitate peace contacts, the Taliban leadership continues to publicly reject talks with Kabul, describing allied statements about the insurgents' desire for negotiations as propaganda.