Declan Walsh

In the past 10 days, almost 300 people have died in air strikes, roadside ambushes, and suicide bombings.

An alarming surge in suicide attacks has fuelled a 30 per cent rise in violence in Afghanistan this year, according to the United Nations. This year has seen an average of 550 violent incidents a month compared with 425 in 2006, a report by the Department of Safety and Security said. In the past 10 days, almost 300 people have died in coalition air strikes, roadside ambushes, and suicide bombings.

Brutality has become a hallmark of the insurgency. This week the Taliban hanged a 15-year-old boy from an electrical pole in Helmand, stuffing dollar bills into his mouth and accusing him of being a spy.

In Kabul on September 29, 30 persons died after a suicide bomber boarded a bus transporting Afghan army recruits. A second attack on Tuesday killed 17 persons on a police bus, including a mother and four children.

In the south, NATO and American-led forces are gaining large military victories, sometimes claiming hundreds of Taliban deaths a day. But the insurgents have adapted to the western military superiority by focusing on low-intensity, high-impact attacks in civilian areas. “The battles with western forces are incredibly lopsided. But the Taliban probably consider they are winning,” said Seth Jones, an analyst with the Rand Corporation.

The U.N. report contradicts recent upbeat statements by President George W. Bush and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, in New York. Mr. Karzai and western officials are discussing — negotiation with the enemy.

Last Saturday, Mr. Karzai repeated his offer of talks with the Taliban. But the overture was swiftly rebuffed.

“The Taliban will never negotiate with the Afghan government in the presence of foreign troops,” spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told the Associated Press.

Analysts say the Taliban has a two-pronged strategy: to re-establish its authority over the southern provinces around the militia’s former headquarters in Kandahar and to destabilise a ring of provinces around Kabul. A senior British commander admitted to a recent visitor that NATO controlled “at most” 20 per cent of southern Afghanistan.

Rear bases in Balochistan in neighbouring Pakistan also play a key role. “To the degree there’s any central leadership it’s based out of Quetta,” said Mr. Jones, referring to the Balochi capital.

Mr. Karzai’s most urgent problem is his own lack of authority. Rampant drug smuggling and government corruption have badly eroded faith in his leadership in the worst affected areas.

“The Taliban are not particularly popular. It’s just that people are completely fed up with the government,” said Mr Jones.