Springtime always brings in an influx of Taliban [ Images ] fighters to the district of Zhari, in Kandahar province of Afghanistan, where the thick cover provided by the grapevines and the orchards prevent North Atlantic Treaty Organisations's hi-tech thermal imaging cameras to see the insurgents hiding within, a report in the Guardian states.
But this year things are different. The locals say that this year, the Taliban fighters have arrived in far higher numbers, the report notes.
"Two months ago there were only around 30 in the area, but we now see hundreds of them -- young teenage boys, led by older commanders, who are well armed and well equipped," a local shopkeeper was quoted in the report.
According to another farmer, the fighters operate within just a few hundred metres of the NATO bases. "They just come up and check we haven't met government officials and demand food and money," he said.
As they did before the major February operation in Marjah in Helmand, the insurgents are preparing for the onslaught by laying roadside bombs and mines in the areas where they expect to fight. But, unlike in the past, they now rarely tell the locals where they are buried, the farmer added, according to the report.
June and July will see about 23,000 American, Canadian and Afghan troops attempt to clear Kandahar's rural hinterlands, focusing particularly on areas such as Zhari and the neighbouring district of Panjwai.
The hope is that by controlling these areas they will take the pressure off the beleaguered city of Kandahar. NATO plans to creating 'rings of security' around the provincial capital. But inside the city, a Taliban campaign of violence has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of panic and terror.
Sources throughout the vital southern province report similar stories of a higher than usual influx of fighters, including insurgents, passing through the district of Shah Wali Kot to the north and the area of Dand to the south.
The heavily fortified Indian consulate in Kandahar also said it had received reports from locals from Maruf, a district on the border with Pakistan, that Taliban activity has 'increased many-fold' compared with last year, the report stated.
As such, both the sides are gearing up for a bloody summer. The head of the health department in Kandahar has set up an additional 100 beds for the city's main hospital, which previously had 330. Those beds are already full of the war wounded, including many suspected Taliban fighters.
Caught between the two sides, civilians are hoping to avoid the crossfire.
A tribal elder from Arghandab district, said people in his area were only interested in avoiding the fight. "The people only want peace and security; they don't care if it's provided by International Security Assistance Force led by NATO or the Taliban," he said.
A recent public opinion survey in Kandahar conducted for the US army found that despite their efforts to remain above the fray, most of the 1,994 people questioned sympathised with the insurgents' reasons for taking up arms against the government. Some 94 per cent of respondents did not want foreign forces to start a new operation.
The US has already stepped up its secret war against the Taliban. Special forces teams have been killing and capturing mid-level commanders and apparently squeezing the insurgents' supply chains, the report said.
But in recent weeks, the Taliban have been on an aggressive assassination spree, bringing an unparalleled level of fear to the city.
Last month the Kandahar's deputy mayor was shot dead as he prayed in a mosque. A week earlier, a young Afghan woman employed by Development Alternatives, a company that works on US government construction projects, was gunned down as she travelled to work.
These developments have created a sense of horror and insecurity, particularly among the ones connected with the government, NATO or any foreign organization, the report also stated.
At a time when the US military is trying to bolster the provincial government's capacity to get things done, key staff members are trying to quit. One aide in the governor's office, has handed in his resignation although it has not yet been accepted, the report cites.
People who work even for the 'neutral' organizations, like the International Committee of Red Cross and the United Nations, have also been warned by the Taliban to quit, as they believe that such organisations share information with the Americans and cannot be believed.
"They are trying to show who is the boss in Kandahar city, and it appears to be working," an Indian diplomat was quoted in the report.
Nato hoped that the meager loss ion local support would encourage the Taliban fighters to simply withdraw. But it has, in fact, given the Taliban time to thoroughly prepare the battleground with bombs and mines, as well as terrifying the local population, the report added.
Image: US Army soldier with the 1st platoon, secures an area in Mian Joie village during a security operation in Arghandab valley in Kandahar province, on Monday
Photograph: Yannis Behrakis / Reuters