SHARANA, Afghanistan — Army 1st Lt. Chip Heidt, his wire spectacles sliding down his wet nose in the hot midday sun, was walking with a purpose amid a stretch of the 20-foot-high mud walls in this Afghan town opposite Pakistan's lawless Waziristan tribal area. Heidt, 25 was on a foot patrol to gather local intelligence.
A man in a large beret waved him over and asked, "What will be the sign between us when the Taliban attack us here?" Heidt didn't have a ready answer. He had a question of his own, however, about the rumor that Taliban insurgents had beheaded an Afghan amid the scrub brush down the road. He asked the man to follow him back to the military base a mile away for a chat and a cup of tea.
The Taliban are aware of such patrols and try to work around them. They have learned to calibrate the movement of NATO forces, and they have mounted a campaign of intimidation to expand their grip on villages and towns across the country. Using terrorism tactics, the widely unpopular guerrilla movement has built up its presence in the countryside, which NATO wants to help hand back to Afghans.
Early on Thursday, about 4,000 U.S. Marines along with 750 Afghan troops launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan's restive Helmand province. U.S. military leaders hope to rout out the Taliban's hold over parts of Afghanistan's major poppy-producing province, so that government forces can regain control for the first time in five years. So far, one Marine has been killed amid sporadic gunbattles.
The Taliban the Americans face are a far cry from the Pashtun guerrillas who seized power in 1996. Back then, they were the rescuers who arrived on a wave of popular support and provided security from the raging chaos and horror sown by warlords. Now the Taliban are the sowers of chaos and insecurity as they seek to undermine the Afghan government and dodge attacks from the world's most advanced military.
U.S. forces belatedly have recognized the Taliban's tactics and adjusted their own, starting with foot patrols such as Heidt's. In this game of cat and mouse, however, the Taliban have been winning, according to Afghans.
The Taliban are so omnipresent, albeit often covertly, in many cities, towns and villages that many Afghans have surrendered with resignation to their intimidating ways, said Afghans who were interviewed for this story.
Heidt took his guest through the gate, past a perimeter with two checkpoints and two 10-foot-high walls. The visitor confirmed the rumor of the beheading, the latest in a spate of atrocities.
An enormous U.S. air base is under construction in Sharana that will support ground operations in Paktika -- a poor, mountainous province beset by dust storms and surrounded by Taliban and al Qaida havens -- but there are many who doubt that it will bring security.
U.S. forces have been stationed in outposts in this region for seven and a half years, but the Taliban staged a comeback by stepping up crimes against ordinary Afghans. Now the Afghans are increasingly hostile to the Americans who failed to protect them.
How this state of affairs came about is largely a tale of missed opportunities by the United States and seized opportunities by the Taliban, according to Afghan experts. The story of Paktika, with variants, is the story of almost every border region of Afghanistan.
Today, the insurgent group's "footprint" extends across the east and south of the country and well into the west.
According to Vahid Mojdeh, an Afghan historian who served as a Foreign Ministry adviser to the Taliban in the late '90s, the Taliban began their major thrust -- under the radar -- about five years ago, almost three years after a U.S.-backed military offensive had pushed most of them underground or over the border into Pakistan. At first, fighters, often operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan, were reluctant to bed down with the local population.
"Then, slowly but surely, they started trying it and they were accepted, even staying the evening in villages," he said. With one eye on the movements of U.S. and NATO forces, Taliban fighters started launching military strikes from Afghan villages and recruiting more local fighters to bolster their ranks.
Embedding with the local population has paid considerable dividends to the Taliban, Mojdeh said. Coalition and Afghan forces regularly launch major sweeps of the countryside, which sometimes lead to aerial bombings of "suspected" villages, but the Taliban fighters melt into the farming communities. Civilian casualties from airstrikes, as well as the rounding up of the wrong "suspects," anger locals and enhance Taliban recruitment.
NATO officials concur that the Taliban, over the last four years, have gradually stepped up their level of intimidation and coercion across Afghanistan.
"One of the mistakes we have made for years here in Afghanistan was to measure the violence in terms of attacks on NATO and U.S. forces," said Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, 55, a Charlotte, N.C., native, who is NATO's chief of operations.
"When you drive down the road with guns stuck out like porcupines, you are going to get shot at. But our measurements are changing now, and we've just begun to try to gauge the levels of violence and intimidation against Afghans." Phone and text-message threats, as well as "night letters" warning people not to cooperate with NATO and U.S. forces, have been common, accompanied by kidnappings and assassinations.
U.S. forces, whose inclination when outflanked has been to protect themselves, have a new mantra: keep in touch with Afghans.
Back inside the confines of his base near Sharana in Paktika province, 1st Lt. Heidt pulled out a set of cards where he kept notes on how the enemy is working around U.S. military patrols. He read out a few of Gen. David Petraeus' words to the wise: "Forces must conduct patrols, share risk and maintain contact to obtain the intelligence to drive operations." Petraeus, who was the chief military commander in Iraq and now heads the U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, is widely viewed as the principal champion of counterinsurgency strategy in the U.S. military.