As U.S. and NATO troops draw down in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters are growing bolder. They have been massing in larger and larger numbers and taking on Afghan forces across the country.
NPR producer Sultan Faizy and I spent a recent day making calls to ordinary Afghan citizens in some of the country's hot spots.
First, we reached Ahmadullah, who like many Afghans, goes by one name. He's a shopkeeper in the restive Sangin District in the southern province of Helmand. Sangin has been one of the bloodiest and most contested districts in the country. A couple of months ago, an estimated 800 Taliban, unprecedented numbers, stormed the district.
"Still it's not stable," says Ahmadullah. He says fighting is ongoing, and it's not secure in the market area where his shop is.
"There is a great uncertainty because some days we are witnessing the Taliban coming in and some days the government is capturing back the district," he says.
He says the government isn't strong enough to retake the district and continue to hold it. That's why anyone who can is fleeing. He says some people are simply running off into the desert and building tents.
Ahmadullah says those who have stayed in Sangin are desperately short on food and water. He adds that he's lost two children and a brother in the fighting.
Next, we speak with Abdul Mumin, a farmer living in the northern province of Kunduz. He says after a 15-day offensive conducted by hundreds of Taliban, Afghan forces retook his district. He says it was the worst fighting he can remember there, and he's worried the Taliban will try again.
In eastern Afghanistan, we reach Juma Khan. He lives in the Charkh District of Logar Province, which sits just to the south Kabul. Khan is unemployed. Hundreds of militants attacked eastern Logar along the Pakistani border last week, and at least 100 militants are reported to have launched an attack in Charkh recently.
Khan says the Taliban now control remote areas of the district and keep staging attacks on the district center. He says the fighting is much worse this year than the last few years.
In other parts of the country, there are similar stories of large numbers of Taliban staging larger attacks than have been seen in recent years.
Publicly, NATO disagrees with that.
Maj. Gen. Steve Townshend, the commander of NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, says violence levels are down this year. But, he acknowledges that assessment could also be a function of having fewer troops, and therefore fewer eyes, on the battlefield now.
"Clearly our ability to know what's happening out there for sure, is less," he says.
The United Nations and analysts in Kabul argue that violence is significantly higher this summer. Graeme Smith is with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. He's built a database tracking Taliban offensives against district centers.
"That's not really something you had to track in previous years," he says.
But, with the drawdown of NATO forces, and especially the reduction in air support, he says Taliban are massing in ways not seen since the early days of the war.
"The Taliban used small guerrilla style tactics because they really did have a fear of U.S. air power, and that fear is diminishing now," says Smith.
Afghan Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, head of operations in the Ministry Of Defense says the government expected a big push from the Taliban this summer.
"The Taliban couldn't capture a single district, but they suffered great casualties and Afghan forces retook all those areas that were temporarily captured by the Taliban," says Aman.
He argues that Afghan forces are more than holding their own. But he does concede they are taking higher casualties than they did last year, which was a record year for Afghan casualties.
But, some Afghan officials around the country are less optimistic than Aman. They say militants are in fact taking and holding ground. Even the minister of defense has said publicly the Taliban are exploiting the uncertainty around the presidential election to carrying out operations.
The runoff election in June pitted Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister, against Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister. But the votes are still be audited due to allegations of fraud. It's still not clear when the winner will be declared or who it will be.
Either way, the next president will face serious security challenges.
"The government positions are slowly eroding at the fringes," says Smith.
He says the territory seized by militants isn't necessarily strategically significant, but it gives the Taliban political leverage in any future political talks.
"I think it makes it very difficult for the government to negotiate peace with an insurgency that feels increasingly confident," Smith says.
He argues that for Afghan forces just to battle to a stalemate, they will need billions of dollars more than the international community has currently budgeted. In the meantime, the U.N.'s Georgette Gagnon says civilians are paying the price.
"Fighting between Afghan forces and insurgents, have become the leading cause of civilian casualties," she says.
Gagnon says the increase in ground fighting is the main reason civilian casualties have reached record levels this year.
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor this week begins working at the boutique investment bank Moelis & Company.
Cantor will serve as vice chairman and managing director, and will also be elected to the firm's board of directors.
Cantor, 51, and firm founder Ken Moelis announced the decision in a joint interview on Monday.
A statement on the Moelis website said, "Cantor will provide strategic counsel to the firm's corporate and institutional clients on key issues. He will play a leading role in client development and advise clients on strategic matters."
Cantor does not have a Wall Street background but was considered a friend of Wall Street while he served in Congress.
Cantor, who will continue to live in Virginia, will open a new office for the firm in Washington, D.C., in addition to having an office at the company's headquarters in New York City, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The Virginia Republican was unexpectedly defeated in a June primary by college professor David Brat, and stepped down as majority leader shortly after that.
The loss by the No. 2 House Republican shocked many political analysts and the congressman himself.
With the defeat, Cantor became the most prominent victim of the Tea Party.
Cantor is a native of Richmond, Va., and worked for his family's real estate development firm before being elected to Virginia's House of Delegates.
He was first elected to Congress in 2000.
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NATO leaders are expected to set up a rapid-response force to deploy quickly to eastern Europe to defend against potential Russian aggression at their meeting in Wales later this week.
The force of about 4,000 troops will be ready to move on 48 hours notice from a station in a member country close to Russia, The New York Times reported.
The "spearhead" force would be defensive in nature and able to respond "to Russia's aggressive behavior — but it equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges, wherever they may arise," said Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a speech on the NATO website.
The Obama administration supports the plan, but emphasized the force's defensive posture, National Security Spokesman Caitlin Hayden tells CNN.
The force is "not intended as a provocation, or as a threat to Russia, but rather as a demonstration of NATO's continued commitment to our collective defense," Hayden said.
Poland and other NATO members in eastern and Baltic states had expressed concerns about Russian actions in Ukraine, and had demanded a stronger response, says the Guardian. The new force will not help with the current situation in Ukraine, but may serve as a deterrent if Russia considers destabilizing the Baltic states.
"The spearhead group will be trained to deal with unconventional actions, from the funding of separatist groups to the use of social media, intimidation and black propaganda," writes the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill.
Russia is bound to view it as an act of aggression, MacAskill says.
The NATO summit, featuring some 60 heads of state, including President Obama, is set for Thursday and Friday at the Celtic Manor Resort, a luxury hotel complex in Newport, Wales.